THE moment when a flashily-dressed, thoroly self-confident individual stepped off a Kansas and Pacific passenger train at Hutchinson on a spring day in 1889 fate began weaving an important phase of Kansas industrial and mining history tho no one realized it then, least of all the colorfully arrayed new arrival.
Ben Blanchard was his name. He came to Kansas in the role of a real estate promoter and his activities soon won him the sobriquet of “Get-Rich-Quick” Blanchard. Within a few weeks, unwittingly and wholly without premeditation, he had touched off a series of events which, today, have brought Kansas to third rank among the states of the nation in the production of salt.
Ironically enough when Blanchard left Hutchinson, broke and disillusioned, a few months after his arrival he was ignorant of what he had started and unaware that he had disgustingly tossed away the fortune be sought when he had it within his very hands.
BLANCHARD’S first move was to cross the Arkansas river into what is now South Hutchinson where he laid out the fields into city lots; threw up several frame buildings for both business and dwelling purposes; and offered them for sale. The difficulty was that no buyers appeared.
His next step was to use orthodox high-pressure promotion bait. He started construction of a derrick about which he was very secretive. However, he soon after was exhibiting a large chunk of anthracite coal, claimed to have been taken from his well, and he announced the discovery on his townsite of one of the largest anthracite fields in the world.
That, too, failed to bring customers for his lots and buildings, so Blanchard went back to drilling. Soon he was back in his sales office with the story that he had struck gas with a production of several thousand cubic feet daily and that, with each building purchased, gas would be furnished for heat during the life of the well.
No lines formed, however, to take advantage of the bargain for investigation showed there was no more gas in the well than there was coal. So back, once more, to his drilling went Ben, somewhat confounded but still bent on getting rid of his “white elephant.”
And a “white elephant” it certainly appeared to be, literally, when Blanchard’s next exhibit from his well proved to be several pieces of white crystal. These, too, were branded as worthless and the intrepid promotor, now, admitted he was licked. His funds were gone and it seemed hopeless that his well would ever produce a miracle of sufficient magnitude to convince the cynical Kansans. He threw his white crystals away and left Hutchinson and, with these two acts, abandoned a fortune.
IN the fall of 1889 a Mr. Tuthill bought the land on which the Blanchard well was located, intending to drill for oil. Cleaning out the hole, he found it was full of brine. He investigated and it developed that the well had been drilled through nearly 400 feet of salt!
In such fashion, through a real estate promotion scheme and a plan to drill for oil, was the great salt field of central and west central Kansas discovered!
Tuthill immediately lost all interest in drilling for oil. Using crude methods of evaporation, with the sun as the principal agency, he began to refine the brine.
Before he was well started he had plenty of competition. Within a year there were 10 plants operating in Hutchinson. Blanchard’s “white elephant” had laid the foundation for one of Kansas’ greatest industries.
Today there are but three operating companies in Hutchinson — the Barton Salt Company, the Morton Salt Company and the Carey Salt Company. The first two operate evaporation plants; the Carey Company operates both a mine and an evaporation system.
ONE of the oldest of these plants is the Barton Company, organized soon after Tuthill’s epochal discovery by the Barton brothers, Ed, Frand and William. They were responsible for several notable improvements in refining methods. Tuthill originally used the sun to evaporate the salt-loaded water. This was quickly improved by building a coal fire under the brine pans. The Bartons went a step further by introducing steam-heated pans, thereby producing a much whiter salt.
When Ed Barton died in 1912 the plant was operated, for a short time, by his widow and, then, her interests were purchased by C. H. Humphreys, now president and general manager of the company. Mr. Humphreys came to Hutchinson from Saltville, Va., where he was chemical engineer and process man for the Mathhewson companies. He is considered one of the best process men in the salt industry.
In addition to being one of the leading industrialists of the state, Mr. Humphreys was active in the organization of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce in 1924 and has served continuously as a member of the board of directors since its inception. He was president of the State Chamber for three terms.
Under his leadership the Barton Company and its products have attained a nationwide reputation and distribution. Through his direction the vacuum system of refining salt was introduced and numerous other mechanical improvements devised and installed which eliminate all foreign substances from the product and produce a salt that is almost chemically pure. Three years ago the company installed one of the largest and most modern block machines in the industry.
THE Carey salt mine is some feet below the surface of the earth. Since opened in 1923 nearly 100 rooms have been cut from the solid rock salt vein. The salt is blasted from the walls, loaded into “dinkies” which operate over a network of tracks and hoisted by elevator to the breaker house.
The salt deposit underlying Hutchinson and that section of Kansas is one of the largest in the world. Covering several thousand square miles and reaching a thickness in some places of 400 feet, it is the remains of an old salt sea and contains enough salt to supply the United States for the next 250,000 years at the present rate of consumption.
As the third salt-producing state in the nation, the Kansas production during the past 15 years has averaged 800,000 tons annually with an average annual value of $3,000,000.