Submitted by Ralmon Jon Black, Williamsburg
In 1760, conditions had ripened to the extent that New England colonies began breaking out of their palisades to occupy the uncharted wilderness. As the Hilltowns were being settled, potash was an important farm and home industry. It was a standing cash crop, money for the taking, when there was none other. It was worth silver in the foreign markets, where the textile industry desired tons and tons of it to make the scouring and bleaching agents they needed. This huge market trickled into the pockets of the common man, silver that would capitalize building the towns, roads, bridges, meetinghouses, schools, sawmills and gristmills.
Every one of these new settlers became engaged in some phase of the colonial potash business even if only to save the ashes from the fireplace to pay their taxes. Some husbandmen processed their ashes, leeching lye from them and evaporating it to black salts. Some grew their industry of taking potassium carbonate from their hardwood forest and the forests of their neighbors, refining it into pearlash in a kiln ready for export to England and France. There were entrepreneurial storekeepers accepting ashes in payment for their goods, and operating an ashery in conjunction with their stores. They were taking cartloads of commodities to more remote villages and trading them for ashes when there was no money. Potash receipts passed current when there was no other specie. Many young men of the second generation struck out on their own, moving west before 1800, to carry on the only lucrative industry they had learned from their fathers, potash. Successive generations continued the harvest westward, making a great swath of the hardwoods, through Ohio and all the way to Michigan. It was a dangerous, dirty and an entirely unpleasant business, which ended when all the land had been cleared. It has gone unrecorded, as though it could not soon enough be forgotten. The relics of the potash industry are few, here the mysterious stoned up structure of a filled in potash cellar, there a leech stone with a circular groove cut into it, or a potash kettle which came to serve in evaporating maple sap, making soap, scalding hogs at slaughter or as a watering tank for the livestock. And everywhere, in every town, a “Potash Hill” a “Potash Brook” or “Potash Road.” The extent and magnitude of the colonial potash industry affected the economy of those times and the land forever, yet a social memory of it has been smudged by Forgetfulness and Time.
With the end of the confrontations between New France and New England in 1763 and the fear of Indian attacks, fifth and sixth generation English families in American burst out of the confines of the cramped, protected hamlets along the coast and navigable rivers to invade the dense virgin woodlands in the hills. The farms their great-great grandfathers first settled were seriously depleted, the government was laying out public ways and handing out grants. Young families had the opportunity to ac-quire new lands, rich in untapped resources of hardwood forests that could be cleared for farmland. They knew the very clearing of the wood-lands would yield each of them a small fortune in potash, returning their investment in land and funding their road building and developments. They needed the land cleared—it was a win—win situation, well worth the risks they faced. It was so successful for them that very soon, more families followed. Some came over the hill from Hatfield, some up the river from Northampton and Connecticut and some made the ten or twelve-day oxcart move from Braintree, Weymouth and Martha’s Vineyard. They set-tled, widely dispersed, on large tracts of land and began cutting and burning building lots, garden plots, grazing land and always saving and processing the ashes to salts of lye.
They worked together where only teams of men and animals could ac-complish the heavy work of moving logs and timbers, riving, hewing, sawing, building—homemaking. Some started saw works, some brickworks, some blacksmith shops or tanneries but all were in the ashworks. Some families, like the Dwights, Nashes and Williamses of Williamsburg, as is documented, and surely many others equipped asheries ready to take in and refine ashes and black salts from all around. They all worked together, trading their labors and wares with neighbors in shares. Most
storekeepers were ready to exchange imported merchandise for ashes from homeowners and farmers or they would accept receipts from potash works as local tender. Potash had a cash value like no other product of the farm. When a milch cow was worth six or eight dollars, the ashes produced in ones spare time from an acre of woodland was worth the same. Dwight owned a 200-acre farm and held title to much more, uncalculated acreage.
About the time most of the easily accessible woodland had been burned and exported as potash, the textile industry, came riding the wave of the industrial revolution, and surfed upriver to the Hilltowns, with a renewed demand for potash. Farmers went further into the forest to produce ashes, sparing only the pine and hemlock, which bore little potash. Photographs made between 1860 and 1900 show a landscape so devoid of trees as to be unrecognizable in today’s eyes.
The changes in the land from 1750 to 1850—all the woodlands gone, the habitat for fauna and flora so altered, farms, roads, and mill villages built largely with the change the yeomen had made from potash. Yet somehow potash, as important an activity as it was, never survived in the collective memory of area. It was a resource, at first completely exhausted, then, just when it was starting to renew itself, science replaced it with totally unrelated sources, worldwide evaporate deposits and the sea itself.
The potash harvest was a hard, dangerous, dirty, altogether unpleasant, although necessary activity that everyone was engaged in. Once it had been played out and run its course no one could be nostalgic for it like apple-picking and hard cider, the corn harvest and husking bees or the maple season and sugar eats. Everyone was glad to forget it when it had lost its importance and history has barely noted it. Potash? What’s that?!
Because the topic of Colonial Asheries is obscure and because historians who should know about it have overlooked it, a monograph has been written by local historian, Ralmon Jon Black. Awakened to it by brief sketches, town records, deeds and ledgers, this subject has been researched, first in Williamsburg, but then in the wider area. The illustrated monograph, Colonial Asheries and Potash, The First and Most Profitable Industry, The Industrial Revolution in the Hilltowns, Ralmon Jon Black, Historical Society, Williamsburg, MA, second edition, 2014, is available on request. The subject has been the topic of a discourse presented by the author to a very interested audience at many societies and museums.
The next discourse will be presented as part of the Historical Lecture Series at Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Mon. Mar 24, 2014 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm. Admission: $7 general/ $5 members