A Kentuckian named Charles House has become one of the world's foremost historians of Clay County salt and who got hung for what.
He, like other historians, didn't write history down soon enough to do us any good. We only learn from the past when later on past the past somebody writes it down.
The book is Heroes & Skallywags and so for those of you cool enough to read the Sunday paper and too cool to read a print book, I shall paint a word picture of what he taught us, too late. This will be the truth, if not factual. The names have not been changed because there are no innocent.
It is 1816. Coming out of Goose Creek down from its head where it goes over into Knox County at a place where if a coal miner was trying to pee on Obama, some would run into the Kentucky River watershed and some into the Cumberland River watershed, a fancy late model carriage, bearing the ruffle-shirt gentry, pulled by fine horses fed on good hay, rolled toward Manchester, then called "Manchester."
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On the back of the carriage was a sticker which read "Friends of Salt" with some big white lumps. There certainly was nobody peeing on the president on a window sticker because newly elected President James Monroe owned 40,000 acres in Clay County with good salt, given to him by the government.
The carriage was driven and attended by lucky slaves who did not have to work all day boiling brine and go back to the mansion they had built free of charge and raise their Philadelphia absentee salt operators some fine food.
So, there was no overhead when the salt was sold. The slave-owning salt operators were movers and shakers — salt shakers.
The carriage horses were lucky, too. They could have been the mule back at the brine pump going round and round with a sack over his eyes. If somebody is being exploited, it is better to put a sack over their eyes. The mule, who knew the route, longed for the day he would move up to molasses, or even to pack mule, to carry the salt out to be hauled away on the roads built especially for salt. On toll roads, the state passed a law that every one paid a toll except salt packers.
Six property owners owned 41 percent of the land in the county. These were some of the richest men in the country and included an absentee salt operator from Philadelphia named James Garrard who, while governor of Kentucky, pushed through legislation which said that lick owners should manufacture salt "with as much ease as possible," and which law allowed salt companies to condemn from other landowners the right to run salt water troughs through their property at low cost.
The salt barons ran the county court. The first official seal of Clay County was a barge loaded with salt barrels.
Salt brought great wealth to the area, and the owners of the salt works thought and preached the salt would last forever and therefore so should slavery.
They cut down the trees to burn to fire furnaces and thought the only value of the land was to supply timber and that salt was more important than rich dirt.
1816 was a modern progressive age, well before the Depression of 1840, then a small war involving two halves of the United States, and finally the discovery of salt in Louisiana, all of which ruined the salt business and put Clay County on a path to basketball. Read the book and you can find out who killed who over what girl.
Larry Webster is a Pikeville attorney.