On Friday, February 13, 1931, 25 students from Sterling College’s junior class drove to Lyons for a tour of the Diamond Crystal Salt Company mine. After descending 1,060 feet below surface to the mine floor, the students marveled at the salt mine’s tunnels and caverns illuminated by electric light and, according to a newspaper reporter, “as warm as a summer day.” Over 80 years ago, the students got a firsthand look at the work and workers in Lyons’ salt mines. Today, visitors to the Coronado Quivira Museum can take an in-depth look at the history of the salt mines at “By the Sweat of Their Brows: The Men Mechanics and Science of Salt,” the companion exhibition to “The Way We Worked,” Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display through October 21, 2012.
The college students’ tour of the mines speaks to the importance of salt mining to the residents of Lyons and Rice County, according to Maggie Carlson, director of the Coronado Quivira Museum. “When the salt beds running underneath Rice County’s prairies were confirmed in 1887, the excitement of Rice Countians could not be contained,” shared Carlson. “The Lyons Republican newspaper proudly announced, ‘It beats a coal mine! It beats natural gas! It beats an oil well! It beats the devil!’ The newspaper further encouraged would-be entrepreneurs to ‘Bring on your salt works! Bring your money, capital, and machinery! Bring on your men wanting labor! Bring on your prosperity!’”
The discovery of salt would forever change Rice County, in more ways than residents could have anticipated. “That entrepreneurial spirit eventually created five different salt works in Rice County,” explained Carlson. “Corporate men worked in Rice County to run the facilities and secure capital for starting operations from as far away as St. Louis and the East Coast of the United States. These facilities brought prosperity to Rice County which farming alone could not have provided and, as a result, the towns of Rice County flourished.”
However, this prosperity required labor. “It was the men, women, and children who worked at the various facilities, both above and below the ground, who made this prosperity possible,” noted Carlson. “From the miners blasting the rock salt free from the earth more than 1,000 feet below ground, to the women who sewed the bags the rock salt was sold in and took over mining duties during war time, to the children who picked rocks and impurities from the newly-blasted rock salt, the workers in Rice County’s salt industry have fascinating stories to tell.”
The stories of the salt mine workers are featured in “By the Sweat of Their Brows: The Men, Mechanics and Science of Salt,” the Coronado Quivira Museum’s companion exhibition to “The Way We Worked.” “Whether they were Americans or newly arrived immigrants from Mexico brought in to fill labor shortages and pursue the American Dream, these workers had an impact on Rice County, economically, culturally, and historically,” said Carlson. “We’re pleased to share their stories alongside the national stories featured in ‘The Way We Worked.’”