Seventeen years later I still remember the places to stop.  Having gone away to the Twin Cities for college, I came to know that roads that traversed Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota very well.  Merle Hay Road.  That was the exit in Des Moines that had the most fast food restaurants.  The most selections.  The signal point in my journey of being almost halfway (depending on whether I was coming or going).


While I could look to the Kelly green exit signs for direction,  adventurers first traveling west had to listen to the legends.  And John Irving (relative of author Washington Irving) retold a Pawnee one that possibly affected how the state of Nebraska was settled.  A Pawnee story of warrior, whose wife, the chief’s daughter who was supposedly swallowed up by the earth after wrestling with an old woman who threatened her with an ax.  Lovely, I know.  Supposedly leaving salt as evidence of the traces of her tears.  Although reportedly none of the Pawnee took stock in the legend, they did beat the ground before taking away the salt, as if wrestling it away from that ax-wielding woman.

I first read this salt flats fable in Remember When … Memories of Lincoln by James L. McKee.  I wanted to be able to provide a link to the legend.  But despite creatively searching, I could find nothing online about the author (other than to note that there is current author with the same name).  Nothing on the Pawnee Legend.  So this story must be buried in pages of historical journals, almost lost to the common man.


So whether the fable implored travelers or the 1856 survey of this area, pioneers heard about the basins of salt and would detour miles out of the way to collect this necessary resource.  Being able to preserve meat and more was of utmost priority.  Entrepreneurs saw dollar signs.  Nebraska Salt Manufacturing Company incorporated March 1st, 1855.  (Ironically exactly 12 years before Nebraska became a state).  The Crescent Company (later known as Morton Salt)  moved in but moved on again for awhile with the threat of Pawnees nearby.  But the lure of the salt won out and compelled a return, and many others also tried their hand at profiting from this natural resource.


My representation of the Lancaster salt flats.

Despite mixed results, this promise of salt continued to be a factor, even affecting the placement of the capital.  (Read more about this in one of my previous posts: “Nebraska’s 1st ever ice cream social.”)  The founders of this state had high hopes of this location turning into a feasible industry site.  After all, twice daily between three and four, both morning & afternoon, salt would ooze out the ground, amazing the observers.


Soon the subdividing of the lake bed occurred and orderly claims (set up like street blocks) were being “mined” for salt.  But this proved to be difficult.  Protecting the salt from dilution in water storms.  Setting up solar evaporation systems.  Although this did provide a temporary income for many who sold salt to sojourners on their way to a better life in Oregon, the low quality of the salt also impeded growth.  That and salt caves in Kansas that did not require the same vigilance from the elements.  By 1900, this hope of industry was deemed a failure.  And if Lincoln, partially thanks to the railroad, had not established itself as a city apart from salt, maybe the capital would have changed again.  (Of course this is my own theory! 🙂 )

Frame-able (Or “How salt changed our art one day”)

I try to frequently set apart 20 minute spans of time to spend alone with each one of my children.  Yes, this is a woefully short span of time.  But when you have four kids and a full schedule, you do what you can.  Anyway, they each get to pick their own activity.  This has involved everything from shuttlecock contests, helicopter experiments, trampoline jumping, bulldozer racing and cuddling with books.  This time my youngest picked water color painting.

My husband is the artistic one in our family, and to be honest, this would not be my first choice.  As my four year old settled in with this “Thomas the Tank Engines” pages, I decided to try a new technique that had always intrigued me.  Having just really learned about the Lancaster salt flats, I wanted to see if sprinkling salt over painting would really affect the picture’s outcome.  Painting turned out to be rather relaxing, which was a good thing since two of my other children decided that painting was what they wanted to do as well.


I did learn one important lesson – have plenty of salt on hand.  Because kids sprinkle on an abundance of salt.  And the white granules go everywhere, much to my husband’s chagrin.  Putting the pictures in frames might be the only option since magnetizing the pictures on the refrigerator may result in salt scattering everywhere any time one walks by.  Currently the pictures are hiding on a shelf because while they are messy, they turned out great, better than I expected.


My daughter’s houses.


My eight year old son’s rendition of the capitol.  (Thankfully he has his father’s artistic ability)


My representation of various Nebraska state symbols.  At least the map looks cool.

To paint “salt water colors” …

  1. Water color paper.  Available at any art supply supply (and maybe even at some “big box” stores), this is a worthwhile investment of only a few dollars that produces amazing results.  I do ration it out a bit, as my kids like to paint multiple pictures at one time.  But the each of them did get one piece to experiment with.  The paper does influence the result.
  2. Use lots of water on your picture.  If you are using regular copy paper, this does not work as well as your paper has a tendency to tear.  But the wetter your picture, the more area your salt can stick.
  3. Have your picture mostly complete before adding the salt.  While you can kind of paint on top of the salt, this also could ruin your paints.
  4. The paints: the little bins of 8 shades leftover from my childhood.  I did have a new one that we had picked up at a garage sale.  Despite my attempts at color blending instructions to my kids, the yellow is already an odd shade of green.  While I would possibly let my older kids use “nicer” paints, no one is going to enjoy the experience if mom is constantly fretting about the state of paints.  Cheaper can be better sometimes.
  5. A salt shaker can work well as the sprinkler.  Table salt would definitely be recommended due to the amount that could be consumed.   Save your sea salt for food where it actually makes a difference in taste!


My son’s turtle of the sea.

While the Lincoln salt flats may have resulted in failure, your art will not be if you enjoy the process.  Think creatively and let the water, paint and salt do the work.  We will definitely be painting this way again, although possibly with a bit more supervision to save some salt. 🙂

P.S. In addition to using the McKee title mentioned above, I also found information on these sites as well.

1889 History of Nebraska

The Paths, Trails and Roads of Lancaster

History of Lancaster County and Townships (This was a very interesting post to me – I liked learning how the different Lincoln suburbs and sections received their names).

So, if you have a little time and would like to read further, all of these sites provide great information.

Author: neodyssey