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The sweet story of the Salt House

When you pick up a salt shaker, you probably don’t think about how difficult it was to get your hands on salt during the Civil War.
But when the War broke out in 1861, transporting salt anywhere in the country suddenly required an Olympian effort, and for the Town of Jonesborough, it was no exception.
“You had to cross enemy lines to get salt, and preserving food (with salt) was the key in a pre-refrigeration society,” said Deborah Montanti, director of the Heritage Alliance in Jonesborough. “The county court purchased a large quantity of salt, and it was delivered by train and taken to that building — hence it became known as the Salt House. It hadn’t been known as the Salt House prior to that. It was a big deal (to get salt), and it came from Saltville, Va., the largest supplier in the Confederacy.”
Prominent Jonesborough businessman William Crouch owned the warehouse when it was built in 1840. He used it as a general store and a wholesale grocery warehouse, which seems to have been the intended purpose for the structure. He served as postmaster there until he went bankrupt in 1860.
“So they sort of usurped it (then) for storing salt,” Montanti explained.
The proximity of the railroad tracks near the warehouse made it the perfect setup for loading and unloading salt and other foodstuffs through its extra wide doors. But until the railroad came through in 1857, transporting any of the warehouse’s goods was simply a horse and wagon affair.
The Salt House also marked the epicenter of many of the town’s primary functions, which took place on the land beside it.
“That’s where the grist mill was, that’s where the chase was for water ­— it had a water wheel and everything ­— that was the industrial area of town,” Montanti said.
Crouch offered the building up for sale to another Jonesborough businessman, James Dosser, while the two men stood on the courthouse steps one day in 1860. And Dosser did buy it. But he never really had much use for the building, so, he sold it to the Masonic Lodge in 1875, Montanti said.
The Salt House served as the Mason’s Lodge until the railroad depot, located where the Parsons Table parking lot is now, burned down in 1887. The devastation of the depot presumably wrecked the appeal of the neighborhood, inspiring the Masons to move their meetings to another location.
Then, in 1905 the Masons sold the warehouse to yet another local businessman, Matt Fink, who made the place into the Hickey-McCorkle Wholesale Grocery for 25 years. A hand operated elevator was installed in the Salt House that same year though it is unknown whether Fink was the man responsible.
In 1930, Dobyns Taylor and Jonesborough Hardware bought the structure to house their hardware store supplies until 1975. The Salt House next functioned as a folk shop operated by Jimmy Neil Smith in 1976, as an extension of the Parson’s Table.
It has been used for storage, or simply left empty in the years since then.
The current owner, Joanna Borthwick of Johnson City, said she bought the Salt House as an investment in 2007. It is currently up for sale, and Borthwick said she hopes the monumental old building will be put to good use by a new owner someday soon.
Perched on the edge of town in 1840 the Salthouse was and still is the only example of fairly pure Georgian architecture of its time in Jonesborough.
“At the time that building was built, and as a country, we were really starting to define our own architecture,” said Justin Sanders, preservation field services representative at the Heritage Alliance.
Georgian buildings are characterized by wide, open spaces, large windows and a marked lack of ornamentation. You’ll find no frills in the Salt House, just majestic, sweeping space, thick walls and two sets of extremely wide loading doors.
“There are fewer rooms, but larger rooms- there’s symmetry to the building,” Sanders said. “There’s not a lot of ornamentation like you see later in the Greek revival and the Victorian styles.
“There are some people that refer to that style as a salt box, which is appropriate for that building. The doors are very, very large, so obviously they were conducive to the warehouse, but they’re also still very much in line with the architectural style in that they are not ornate.”
According to research contributed to the Heritage Alliance by Dr. William Kennedy, the building is 3,360 square feet, and it is twice as long as it is wide, measuring at 30 by 60 feet. The walls are three bricks thick, and coated in plaster.
The first floor ceiling soars up to twelve feet, where you could once see exposed beams. While the upstairs ceiling is fourteen feet high, overlooking imposing eight by four foot windows.
The second story is supported by beams that are re-enforced with steel rods, and the floors throughout the building are tongue and groove wood. They are underpinned by a long groove sub floor, which helped the building withstand the great weight and commotion of loading and unloading food, salt and hardware well into the twentieth century.
The window configuration is a slight reversal of that found in standard Georgian structures: The smallest windows are on the first floor, while the larger windows grace the top floor, a practical inversion of a formerly British building plan. It supported the bulk of storage occurring downstairs, and allowed for abundant natural light on the top floor, where paperwork was completed, and Masonic meetings took place.
“But it also could be a nod to us trying to define our own architecture as a new country,” Sanders said. “So taking this pure English style and making it our own is something we see throughout Jonesborough. We see an adaptation of these pure architectural styles to reflect our needs and desires, and to make something unique to us.”