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Salt was an essential early commodity in south Illinois

Illinois Correspondent

EQUALITY, Ill. — Equality is a small town in Gallatin County, Ill., but at one time the western half included portions of Saline County as well. When visitors to southern Illinois hear “Saline,” they may wonder at the origins of the name – salt?

At the Ohio River Visitor Center in Equality, there is information about such a connection. A large piece of salt, along with a brochure written by Paul Mickey of Rochester, Ill., shares the story. This salt was recovered from a natural salt spring near the town of Equality, in southeastern Illinois, that dates back to prehistoric times.

The county was named for its ancient salt works along the Saline River. It attracted deer, buffalo and antelope, which obtained salt simply by licking the mud banks along the river where Native Americans and the French made salt. From 1810-73 there was commercial production of salt, which produced as much as 500 bushels per day.

The owner of one of the salt works built a large house in the 1830s on the Saline River near Equality, known today as the Old Slave House. Still standing, its small attic rooms were thought to be used to house slaves or indentured servants who toiled in the salt works.
Mickey shares that the salt works took advantage of the slave trade for many years. “When Illinois came into the Union as a ‘free’ state, slavery was allowed by the state constitution to continue only at the salt works until 1825, after which only ‘leased slaves’ from Southern states could be legally utilized there,” he wrote.

The Old Slave House is now owned by the state of Illinois but is not open because of lack of funds. For more information about it, check out

Salt usage predates man’s arrival in southern Illinois going back as far as the mastodon days. It was the natives, followed by the French, who began harvesting the salt with the first known established salt works at the spring, around 1735.

Literature from the Department of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University explain the salt usage dates back all the way to the Mississippian Period. They found that the Great Salt Spring near Shawneetown, which was one of two large salt production areas, was one of the first Mississippian salt production areas to be identified archaeologically.

During the 1830s, when the salt works were in their heyday, extracting the salt from the spring was a labor-intensive process. It was extracted using wood and large kettles to literally boil it out of the water.

Mickey reports the area that became known as The United States Salines employed firemen, kettlemen, coopers and support craftsmen such as carpenters and blacksmiths, along with the slave labor.

“A bushel of salt, selling at the salt works for from 50 cents to 75 cents, required about 300 gallons of brine and probably about a cord of wood,” he wrote.

The salt spring operated under private ownership until around 1873 and today, the Great Salt Springs has been preserved and is located in the Shawnee National Forest. The Great Salt Springs is located southeast of Equality on federal land along the south bank of the Saline River, 7/10 of a mile west of Illinois Route 1 on Salt Well Road.

Half Moon Lick, where the saltworks first developed as a large industry, is on private property southwest of Equality. Half Moon Lick is now underwater beneath a private lake. For more information about the area, check out