The History of the Alma Salt Works

-by John Winkler-

Editor’s note:  This manuscript was written by Wabaunsee County pioneer, John Winkler shortly before his death in 1907. Winkler was scheduled to speak from the manuscript at a meeting of the Wabaunsee County Historical Society on August 6, 1907, but was taken ill and could not attend. His manuscript was read to the meeting attendees. Thanks to Alan Winkler for sharing this manuscript.


John Winkler, seated, center, is photographed on the porch of his Denver House Hotel at McFarland, Kansas with his children in this view, circa 1900. Font row, seated left to right are Arthur, Emelie, John, Augusta and Robert Winkler. Back row, left to right are Pauline (Lena) and Otto (Dick) Winkler.

I came to Alma, Kansas on August 13, 1866 from Hanover, Germany after eighteen years of service in the German army. There was then only one building in Alma, a dwelling belonging to Herman Dierker, but a blacksmith shop was soon built and a house called a court house was built.  I hauled lumber for the court house from Topeka with a team of Joseph Treu’s.  This court house was used for most all purposes.  The first story was used for the post office and general store, the upper story being the court room, which was also used for all church and social purposes.  The county seat had just been moved from Wabaunsee to Alma, and as there was no hotel. I decided to build one.  It was completed the following spring when my family consisting of my wife and two children arrived.  The hotel, later known as the Rock Island House, was burned down years ago.  My son Robert, born here April 11, 1868, was the first child born in Alma.


Henry Schmitz, right, stands beside the building which was the first Wabaunsee County Courthouse. To the left of the courthouse building is the E. Meyer store. When this view was taken around 1890, the building housed a saloon. The three boys in front of the doorway are unidentified.

In 1869 I bought 120 acres of Potawatomie reserve land near Maple Hill, which had just been open for settlement and started a farm. (This is the farm where his son Arthur lives.) It was all new country. The neighbors were few and far away.  There was no school, church or store nearer than St. Marys Mission.  Maple Hill is a beautiful country now, but at that time it was not a healthy place and my family suffered much from chills and fever.  My son Arthur was born there April 28, 1870.


John Winkler’s Winkler Hotel, seen here in Matt Thomson’s Early History of Wabaunsee County, was Winkler’s second hotel in Alma, Kansas. This hotel was located at the intersection of 2nd and Missouri Street.

At that time the present townships of Newbury, Maple Hill and Kaw formed one large township called Newbury. I was the first assessor and trustee for this township, and also postmaster during the time I lived there.  After varied experiences, we moved back to Alma in July, 1872, where I purchased the building that stood where the Commercial House stands today and kept the hotel known as the “Winkler House.”

When I bought this place there was no well, and I gave Mr. Link the contract to dig one. This was in the spring of 1873.  There was a newspaper man in Alma named Sellers who visited the well every day to examine the dirt, rock, etc., that was dug out of the well.  He was much interested, hoping to find coal, and talked much of coal and oil.  When they struck water it came with such awful force that the workmen decided to tell Sellers that they had struck gas or oil.  Link, who always liked a little fun, told the boys to spill a little oil from an old lamp to tease Sellers, who had just come from the office in time to see the excitement around the well.  When the water came with such force, Sellers was the first one to claim there was gas or oil and he and everybody smelled it.  Then followed a dispute between Link and Sellers; Link claiming he wanted only clear water and that he would not get paid for digging an oil well.  But Sellers said, “You folks have no idea what this well is worth to Alma, thousands and millions more for our property.  Hurrah for Alma!  We are a rich people.  There, look at the gas and smell the oil, there is no mistake about it, see the blue oil on top of this water.”  And Sellers went back to his office.  Link and his men stopped work for the day.

Now this little joke was the beginning of so much happy expectation and later on so much trouble for Alma. It was the beginning of the salt works, coal mines, etc., which most of Alma folks remember.

The news of finding oil in the well spread over town and county. Many came to look in the well to see the wonder.  The next day the County News came out with a long article on the discovery of oil in the city and the great prospects for Alma.

Soon after this, some gentleman from Wamego sent for a bottle of Alma oil water. The mail carrier took it over to them.  And now some of my good neighbors came and said they had noticed the smell when digging their own wells and were sure that the same vein of oil was on their lots and must be worked out.  My friend and neighbor Schmitz was not a quick believer in new discoveries, so he sent a man at night to get water from the well.  He wished to see for himself.  He told me next day that he was sure of the oil, as they had put chips of pine from planning into the water and then set them on fire and he said they burned like candles.

One good came from this; our butcher named B. was ready to move from Alma on account of small business and had sold his furniture, but when he heard of the prospect for our city, he bought back his furniture and soon built himself a home, feeling sure that there would be good business for a butcher now.

During this time, contractor Link was telling around that he ought to come in for a good share of the benefits and ought to be well paid for making such a valuable discovery.

One morning, my old friend Schmitz came down early and called me aside and said, “Now Winkler tell me the truth, did you put any oil in this well?” I said, “No Schmitz I never did.  If it was done, it was surely Link who did it.”  “O what nonsense,” says Schmitz, “Link never did it; he would not spend money for that oil.  He has bought no oil in our store for a long time and I never heard that he bought any outside and besides, there is not so much oil in Alma as has already been taken out of that well.  It must be so; there surely must be a vein of oil.”

And on this belief he wrote a letter to the “Westliche Post”, a St. Louis newspaper stating the facts as he believed, then concluding with the hope that some intelligent man from the east who was competent to take this in hand would come to Alma for mutual benefit.  He also stated that $300,000 bonds had been voted in this county and that the first railroad company that meant business could draw $150,000 of this right away.

Now there was more life and business in Alma. Wamego people came often to watch prospects.  After about two weeks of this excitement, my wife was tired of this bum bug and asked that the well be cleaned out and walled up and contractor Link was induced to wall up the well.  A pump was bought, a platform built and everything cleaned in good shape.  Just as it was finished a carriage full of gentlemen came from Wamego and I was introduced to a gentleman from the Pennsylvania oil region, who asked if he might inspect our well.  I said, “Yes, it is finished and pump set in.” They all went out to the well, but there was a joker in the crowd who helped to lift the platform and quickly and unseen dropped a small amount of oil into the clean well.  The man’s first words were, “There is an awful smell of oil; get me a newspaper.”  Then he made his way into the well and spread the paper of the top of the water.  After this he came out and struck a match and watched how the paper burned.  This was all.  No one looked for anything more.  The people all believed in the gentleman from Pennsylvania and he had proved all to his own satisfaction.  This fastened the idea in the minds of the Wamego folks and they were jealous of Alma.  We heard later on that the inspector told them that they had just as good a chance for oil as Alma.  But they wisely concluded to wait awhile and watch results in Alma.

Then the well had to be cleaned again and after that it was a fine well of water used for all purposes. Now in May 1873 an answer came by mail from a gentleman in St. Louis who was writing in answer to the ad in the St. Louis paper.  It was about as follows:

Mr. Schmitz, Alma

Dear Sir,

I read your article in the “Westliche Post” of last week and will say that from what I know of the formation of your country, there is very likely a large vein of coal and if you already have such a prospect for oil, hold on to it.  I have had a good deal of experience as a civil engineer and could give you some valuable advice if I was there myself.  I would be glad to come if I I could secure my expense for the trip and would do all I could for you.


W.R., Doctor and Engineer

Now said Henry Schmitz, “That is the man we want here in Alma, just the man we need.” The money for the trip and expenses was secured and the doctor was invited to come.  The Doctor came.  He was a stout active German.  He was very intelligent and made friends everywhere.  An older gentleman came with him who called himself a professor of geology.  He was tall and slim, smooth shaven and looked like a tired school teacher.  These two gentlemen and Henry Schmitz made a prospecting trip of several days in the country around Clapboard Ravine and Nehring Branch for geological information and then announced a general meeting in the evening in the school house.  This meeting was well attended by our most intelligent citizens.


Workers from the Alma Mining Company drilled a number of exploratory holes on the east side of Alma, searching for a significant coal deposit. This view dates from the 1870s.

Here the Doctor gave a strong talk about the great prospect for coal in this country. He went to the blackboard and very quickly and skillfully made a drawing of Mill Creek, the branches and the whole country around, showing where these small coal veins were connected and formed a big one.  It was very interesting and everyone paid full attention to the Doctor. And we could hear the remarks “That is the man, he knows something about coal.  He understands his business.”  When the meeting closed the men were anxious to shake hands with the Doctor and talk about the good prospect for coal and how it would help our city and country.

The next day a company, “The Alma Mining Company” was formed to prospect for any kind of mineral. The Doctor himself wrote the articles of agreement and took signatures of shareholders.  I had to sign for three shares.  This was a little tough for me as I had not much faith in this mining company because I knew how this was started.  But the Doctor explained that the coal was sure thing and how easy it would be now to find a company to take these county bonds and build a railroad.  And we could have coal and railroad at the same time.  The bonds could be sold in St. Louis any day.  But he said we could just as well make up a railroad company of the best citizens and wealthy farmers here.  There is no use to fall into the hands of eastern speculators.  I will help you a good deal in selling these bonds to St. Louis banks.  He would bring up an engineering corps who would make a preliminary survey and some estimates of cost.  Then it would be easy to sell out to a big company who would be glad to build a road up Mill Creek valley.  The Doctor’s argument was well understood by our best citizens and wealthy farmers and it was an easy thing to form a company which was called, “The Mill Creek Valley Railroad. Now then was business; money was raised, an engine bought, engineer hired and a man to do the drilling was secured.  Then one day, Alma heard the first engine whistle.  The place where this coal was to be found at not deeper than 600 feet as shown by the Doctor was on the NW corner of G. Zwanziger’s land, and about 500 feet south of the home of Henry Schmitz.  There operations were begun.


This bond from 1873 was approved by the Wabaunsee County Commissioners for indebtedness to fund the Wabaunsee County portion of the Mill Creek Valley & Council Grove Railway. This bond for $1,000 has coupons which the owner would detach to collect their interest. The bond was cancelled in 1875 when the railroad enterprise failed.

About this time an engineering corps well equipped in charge of Chief Engineer Doctor R. began a survey in the Mill Creek Valley as far as Alma that fall.

The prospect drilling hole was then down about 600 feet but there was no sign of the much expected vein of coal which the Doctor was sure was there. The stockholders became dissatisfied and refused to pay for any further drilling.  But worst of all was the news that some banks in New York and St. Louis who had promised to take the county bonds had failed and were unable to cash the Wabaunsee County bonds.  This came like a thunder clap from a clear sky and settled railroad building for that time.  After a great deal of bad feeling and much talking nobody would claim this mistake.  The Doctor and his engineering corps went back to St. Louis and have not returned.  Drilling was stopped and our great expectations were a failure for that time.

Winter was on and there was a great deal of talk by folks who were not in the coal company, they claiming to have known that it would be so. But as soon as spring came there was new hope and new prospects; it was noticed where the hole had been drilled and where the pump had been cleaned, salt had evaporated in the sun.  By examining more closely, salt brine was found in the drill hole strong enough to pay to manufacture salt.  The question then was, “Shall we start a salt works?” At that time there was no idea that there would be salt works in Kansas as there is now in Hutchinson and other points.  Then a barrel of salt cost more than two dollars and had to be hauled from Wamego, our nearest railroad point.  Our good folks saw the profit in this at once and the third company, “The Alma Salt Works Company” of seven men was formed and was soon in operation.  An engineer was hired and a new Pennsylvania three inch oil pump was secured.  The sweet water was shut out and the clear salt brine was pumped out of the well.  Four vats 80 x 20 feet were built to evaporate in the sun.  Everything worked all right so far and salt could be made.


The Alma Salt Works, seen here in 1874, was located, generally, in the 600 block of Grand Street in Alma, Kansas. The derrick from the brine well is clearly visible. In the distance at the far left the first Wabaunsee County Courthouse, the Meyer Store and Peter Degan’s Germania Hall are all easily recognizable. Just behind the smokestack at the center is the second Wabaunsee County Courthouse.

About this time, 1874, the plague of grasshoppers came to Kansas. They came to Alma in such numbers that the sun was shaded.  They ate all growing crops.  They came around our salt vats flying over and into the salt brine.  It was an awful job for us to pick them out of the salt.  We sold and shipped a car of salt to Denver to a smelter at this time and when we received the pay for it. They wrote, “Gentlemen, your salt is all right and gives satisfaction, but next time send no salted grasshoppers; keep them in Kansas.”

Evaporating salt by the sun was a slow process, as in cloudy days we could do nothing and had to shut down operation for the winter. After several meetings of the company it was decided to make necessary loans in the bank to buy 12 iron kettles.  They were walled in a row, a large chimney built, also a big reservoir or water tank.


This giant iron kettle was one of twelve installed at the Alma Salt Works to evaporate the water from the brine. This kettle is on display in the Wabaunsee County Historical Society’s museum annex.

This was done at great expense, but everyone was sure it would pay in the end and the debt paid back. But our calculation to make money fast did not come true. The day’s expenses coming higher.  We now needed:

3 ½ cords of wood each day – $12, 2 men to run the engine-$3, 2 men to bail-$3, each day we needed 12 empty barrels-$7, for a total daily expense of $25.

To say nothing of wear and tear of accidents, breakdowns, etc., also interest on borrowed money. The best we could manufacture was twelve barrels a day, and we could not make that every day as we found that the water needed to supply the twelve kettles could not be furnished by the pump, as there was not water enough in the well to give the pump a full stroke.  After it was pumped for a short time the engine would have to stop for a time to get water enough in the well to pump out again.

At this time someone at Wamego reported to the Michigan salt works the great danger to their market from the Alma Salt Works; and soon the Michigan Salt Company sent a car load of salt to Wamego lower in price than we could manufacture it. This settled it, we had to quit.  And we did quit with a great deal of experience and well salted.  This taste of salt followed and bothered us for a long time.


The S. H. Fairfield home in Alma, Kansas, located at the southeast corner of 7th and Ohio Streets, is seen in this photo from the late 1870s. The derrick from the Alma Salt Works is visible to the right.

Afterwards more experienced men tried their luck with the salt works without success. Then they drilled for coal again and found several small veins and at a depth of 1700 feet they found a 40 inch vein of anthracite coal.  How this was started and carried on, I cannot say.  My little story of the first salt works and coal mine in Alma is all I intended to write.

My partners in the salt works were: Henry Schmitz, Aug. Meyer, G. Zwanziger, F. Rickershauser, J. Gibson and Joseph Treu, all dead and gone. I am now 79 years of age and my work nearly done.  I hope to meet my old partners some time, but never again in a salt works company.

NOTE: Mr. Winkler was sick and unable to attend the meeting for which the above paper was written. He died at Ottawa on December 4, 1907.)

To view the images in a gallery format or full-screen, click on any image below.




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