Cape Cod’s once-great salt industry was the brainchild of a retired sea captain nicknamed Sleepy John Sears because of his tendency to nod off during the day.
Salt works once lined the coast of the Lower Cape, Massachusetts’ South Shore, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Today they are not only extinct, but pretty much forgotten.
Also forgotten is the importance of salt in peace and in war. Without it, fish, beef, poultry and pork couldn’t be preserved. Salt was a strategically essential but scarce commodity during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In 1777, New Jersey excused from military service as many as 10 men employed by a salt work.
Sleepy John Sears found a way to produce salt on a large scale during the Revolution and long afterward. Because of his ingenuity, salt was Cape Cod’s white gold through the middle of the 19th century.
Before refrigeration, salt was essential to preserving fish and meat. New England’s fishing industry depended on salt, for without it, cod was a perishable foodstuff rather than a lucrative commodity.
That became a problem as the American Revolution approached. Britain began taxing salt exports and blockaded America’s main source of salt, Turks Island in the Caribbean.
Smugglers were still able to bring in salt from Bermuda and the Bahamas until Gen. William Howe captured New York and Long Island. By the time Howe drove the Continental Army from Philadelphia, he had captured its salt reserves. Washington had sent a desperate message, “Every attempt must be made to save it.”
Profiteers began hoarding salt and the price of the commodity soared. In May of 1776, the Continental Congress issued a pamphlet declaring a bounty of one-third dollar for every bushel of salt made or imported.
That set off a frenzy of colonists boiling seawater for salt. The effort proved futile, as it took two cords of wood and 400 gallons of water to produce a single bushel.
No More Laughter
Sleepy John Sears was already thinking about solar evaporation. Born in 1744 in Yarmouth, he was living in Dennis by the time of the war. His family defended his narcolepsy, saying he had ‘fits of abstraction.’
Sears built the first salt works in the summer of 1776 in Sesuit Harbor. It wasn’t much more than a leaky vat, 100 feet long and 10 feet wide. He hauled seawater one bucket at a time to his salt works. It took 350 gallons of water to produce one bushel of salt. His neighbors laughed at him.
At the end of the summer he produced eight bushels. His neighbors called his salt works ‘Sears Folly.’
During the summer of 1777 he tried again, but only after caulking the vat to make it watertight. That year his salt works produced 30 bushels of salt.
In November 1778 he scavenged a bilge pump from the shipwrecked British Man-of-war HMS Somerset. He rigged it up the next summer so he could pump water by hand from the sea.
He was in business turning seawater into white gold.
By 1783, the price of salt had risen to $8 a bushel from 50 cents. Capt. Nathaniel Freeman suggested he use a windmill to pump water. By 1785, Sleepy John Sears rigged up a windmill to pump seawater through pipes – hollow, lead-lined logs – to the vats.
The neighbors stopped laughing. They started calling him Salty John.
The industry spread along Cape Cod’s open coastline, to Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Plymouth, Kingston, Rochester, Hingham and Dorchester as well as Maine. By 1837, there were 78 salt works in Provincetown alone, 658 on the entire Cape.
"Every man living near the salt water had his patch of salt works, if it took his last patch of cornfield or potato yard,” according to Shebnah Rich in his book Truro--Cape Cod, Or, Land Marks and Sea Marks. Building and repairing the worlds employed many mechanics, and making the salt gave jobs to elderly men and boys.
Another inventor devised a sliding cover to keep the vats protected from the rain. Townspeople would race to the salt works to cover them when rain threatened.
Jack Johnson, in his 1944 book Stories of Cape Cod, quotes an old Cape Codder who remembered salt works on his grandfather’s farm.
There were rows and rows of them on my grandfather’s farm. And my grandmother! She had only 14 children. Generally three of them were in arms. Many a time when grandfather and the boys were at the flats (the shore) and a rainstorm came up, grandmother would walk half a mile, carrying one child, leading another, and the three-year-old toddling behind – to the salt works to cover them before the rain came on. Rain freshened the salt, you know.
During the War of 1812, British ships roaming the coast threatened the salt industry. Commodore Richard Ragget of the H.M.S. Spencer threatened to destroy Brewster’s salt works unless the town paid him $4,000. Brewster paid up.
Cape Cod’s vulnerability to military attack and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 contributed to the demise of its salt works. Investment shifted to upstate New York, where a salt springs was discovered in Onondaga
The gradual shut down of Cape Cod’s salt works left 1.425 million feet of wood from the vats. Cape Codders dismantled them and used the wood to build barns and homes.
The last salt work on Cape Cod closed in 1888. Sleepy John Sears did not live to see the demise of the industry he created. He died a rich man in 1817, and was buried in a nondescript grave in West Brewster.
You can see his headstone in the Sears family cemetery at the corner of Airline Road and Old King’s Highway. His epitaph reads, “John Sears, Inventor of the Salt Works, Aged 72 y’rs.”
With thanks to Edible Cape Cod magazine.