Jim Bordwine, Retired Pipefitter, Living History Reenactor; Poor Valley, Virginia:
"I’ve been doing livin’ history for twenty-eight years now. I started out doin’ confederate cavalry mounted; took the horse wherever I went. After several years of that, I decided I was too old to keep falling off the horse. So now I concentrate on teaching about salt; why salt was so important. Folks don’t seem to realize it ain’t been that long ago our parents and grandparents were still living without electricity in these mountains. So when they’d have meat that they had to keep, there weren’t refrigerators, they had to salt that meat down to keep it from spoiling. And that’s what salt’s importance all through history was, was to preserve meat.
We were blessed there at the town of Saltville (Virginia). There was a huge body of salt in the ground, and they’ve made salt there for thousands of years. The town’s history actually goes back to the Ice Age. Back in those days, there was salt water springs flowin’ out of the hills. There was a salt-water lake in the bottom of the valley and that was drawing the big animals like the mammoth and the mastodon in there to lick up that salt around the edge of the lake. Well, the hunters that followed those animals in there when found this place, they realized it was something special. They stayed there and became the tribes that we know today as the Cherokee and the Euchee, different tribes like that. They stayed there and they started making salt and trading to other tribes.
When tribes would come in there to get the salt, they may be the worst enemies in the world, but once they entered that valley they had to be on their best behavior. Now once they got outside the valley, all bets were off, but once they were in Saltville valley itself, they had to behave themselves. They traveled (from Kentucky & beyond) that far, to get the salt. It was used for other things, too; tan hides to make leather, but it’s main thing was to preserve meat.
Now those Indians lived there, they made salt for hundreds and hundreds of years and then in 1567, Spanish soldiers came in and wiped out the village. Then it wasn’t called Saltville, it was called Maniatique. Spanish soldiers had a camp down where Morganton, North Carolina is now. They were running around in the mountains being Spanish soldiers. Spanish soldiers in those days weren’t very nice. Well, the main chief up here at Maniatique heard about’em. He sent word to them he didn't’ like what he was hearing. He said, “Ya’ll get out of my mountains, you leave now, if you don’t leave right now I’m gonna come down there and kill you all and I’ll eat you and your dogs.” For an Indian to tell you he’s gonna kill ya’ and eat ya’, that’s a big insult.
The Spanish captain decided he couldn’t put up with that kind of insult, so he marched fifteen soldiers into the village, and according to the records, they killed over a thousand Indians and burnt fifty of their lodges. Now the reason we got the story, one of the main chief’s daughters was a young girl, probably wasn’t ten or twelve years old, she was captured in the raid and was taken back to the (Spanish) village; which was a place called Santa Elena, was where Parris Island, South Carolina is now. As she got older, she become what they called a Christianized savage. She joined a catholic church, took a Spanish name, and if I remember correctly, she ended up marrying one of the soldiers that captured her to start with; so then her name was Malena Menendez.
The reason we know this story, a professor, the guy that was the head chemist professor at Virginia Tech for about twenty years, a guy named Dr. Jim Glanville, he was researching the chemical entry there in Saltville. He actually got the records from Seville, Spain where they told this story ‘bout bein’ captured and the water coming out of the hills and everything so that’s how come we finally got the story. And it’s kinda shaken up Virginia history cause you know yourself we were always taught Pocahontas, John Smith, 1607. They told us Pocahontas was Virginia’s first princess, well guess what, we had one forty years earlier over in the other end of the state. So, that’s kinda cool I think.
Now, the white settlers didn’t start moving in until 1750. By that time the lake had disappeared, they had no idea there was salt under the valley. General Campbell, of Kings Mountain fame, he was having salt shipped in here from Williamsburg, Virginia by wagon. So now you stop and think about that. Williamsburg from Saltville today is a good seven or eight hour trip on good highways with cars. Can you imagine doing it two hundred-fifty years ago with an old wagon and a couple of oxen with no highways or nothin’? So that’s just like I said, goes to show you how much importance they placed on the salt.
One day, one of the early settlers was out roamin’ around the hills and he stumbled across one of the salt water springs still flowin’. Well, the old light went off. You know they got an idea and started makin’ salt for their own use. So it became a huge business. Now, from the late 1700’s on, in fact, William King, who founded Kingsport, Tennessee, was a salt maker. That’s why Kingsport is there. He was shipping salt down to his port on the river. They kept making’ salt there, it got to be a big business.
Think about something. In the 1860’s, your average working man, if he had a good year, he might make a hundred, or a hundred and twenty-five dollars for that year’s work. In 1864, that one-year alone, even though we fought two major battles, we sold a hundred million dollars worth of salt. That’s 1864 dollars! How many businesses’ today can say they’ve done a hundred million dollars worth of business last year?
A lot of family fortunes were made there. The Stewart family you hear so much about over cross the mountain from us, the Stewart Land and Cattle, Jeb Stewart, who was the cavalry commander, Army Northern Virginia, his brother William Alexander, was living there in Saltville. He owned part of the Saltworks, so he was making a lot of money. The Preston family, I think they ended up going to Columbia, South Carolina getting into politics and stuff.
Are you familiar with the Martha Washington Inn? That was originally a house for the Preston’s. They needed something’ to do with all that money they were making. They built that big house down there in Abingdon. That just gives you an idea how important salt was in those days.
It was a huge business. In 1892, a British company bought up the salt works, they made salt for a few years. But then around 1900 their scientists discovered by adding electricity and a couple other ingredients to that salty water they’d make chemicals out of it. So we had a big chemical industry there for about seventy years. The Air Force had a plant there and they were making’ something called hydrazine. Hydrazine is rocket fuel. The first man on the moon was put there by fuel made right over here in ole’ Saltville, Virginia. So when I’m talking’ to school kids I say “How cool is it that Neil Armstrong filled up with gas here ‘fore he went on his trip?”
Living back in these mountains, you know the old Scots-Irish that come in here and the German settlers that were very independent people, stand up for themselves, wouldn't take guff off anybody. They thought it was their right back there in the old days to make moonshine for themselves. And when the government bucked against it, we had the whiskey rebellion. They thought it was our God-given right to make it ‘cause it was all coming from the earth you know. So that’s why they’d fight over that. And you know, even today, people back in these mountains are still very independent. They don’t like the government telling us what we can and can’t do. I’m not saying we’re anti-government. All these people fought for years to keep the Union together and fought in all the wars America ever had. But don’t come over here and tell us we can’t grow what we want to on our land or we can’t do what we want to on our own land. We’re just still very independent and very bullheaded about authority I guess. We figure we know how to live on our own, we don’t ask for nothing, we don’t expect to be told how to live.
Hillbillies were just people that lived back in these mountains. People make fun of our accents, the way we talk. But if you start thinking about it though, they have proven that, our accents, the words we use, date back to Elizabethan English. We’re talking like the settlers that come over here in the 1600’s back into these hills. It’s pure. It’s very pure. One thing that breaks my heart today in schools is they’re doin’ their best to teach our youngins’, “Don’t say taters. Don’t say winder. Don’t say what cha doin’ over there?” They want you to speak this proper English. And I tell folks, “I ain’t English, and I ain’t gonna speak proper English.” I’m a southern American, I’ve worked these mountains, this was the way we was taught to talk.
I think every school ought to be teaching a class on local history and about our culture and our heritage. This is something near and dear to my heart. We’re unique. There were good folks here before we come to this country, but these mountains, these people are unique. It’s something you ain’t gonna find nowhere else in the world".