The contrast between this salt-producing region that straddled Salt River and the rest of Kentucky at this early date was so great that it is hard to make it comprehensible. Salt was beginning to be produced at a few other places throughout the state, but nowhere else was there such a concentration of wells and furnaces. Hundreds of men were employed in the actual industry as woodchoppers and Wagoner’s, kettle tenders, and water drawers. Many more, such as hunters, and storekeepers, coopers, and carpenters, were directly involved. People came from all over the wilderness to procure the precious salt—–merchants, traders, and private individuals.
Salt was sent by pack train, flatboat, and canoe to one end of the wilderness to the other. Bullitt Lick’s must have taken on something of the nature of a boomtown—-a startling, unbelievable sight to the hunters in from the deep woods and to the settlers from their lonely clearings.
Thomas Perkins from Lincoln County wrote in a letter on February 27, 1785: “I have seen but one spring of consequence in this district which is at a place called Bullitt’s Lick on a small branch of Salt River . . . At this spring, by the best information I could get, about 40 gallons of water will produce a bushel of salt. At the distance of a quarter of a mile from the spring is a small mountain 30 or 35 feet deep, and that the nearer they approach the mountain, the stronger the water is impregnated with salt.” Perkins indicated that the salt was sold at $3.00 per bushel.
The furnaces were long trenches dug back along the top of a bank. They were walled with slate about 15 inches thick, which was laid with a mortar of clay. The kettles themselves held about 22 gallons each and they sat on top of this trench in a row, with as many as fifty in the string. The furnace was fired from in front; the flames and smoke being sucked along under the kettles and out through a stone chimney at the far end of the pit. Generally they were protected from the elements by a shed roof supported on poles. It was quite common for two of these long narrow furnace pits to be under a single roof. The water was boiled for about twenty-four hours, then transferred to a cooler—a trough, which acted as sort of a settling tank. Then the clear, saturated brine was drawn off into the kettles again, and boiled rapidly until it began to grain. Sometimes blood was added to purify the water or the white of an egg.