Towns, people and things we ought to know
Edithburgh: Where They Get The Salt Little Known Facts About a Common Substance
We use salt every day of our lives. Probably there is no more common substance so necessary to civilised man.
But, like all the other good things of life which are easily had, we just take it for granted, knowing little and caring less, about the really important role it plays. This article on Edithburgh incidentally reaches out a helping hand to put salt on its proper pedestal.
Talking about salt ?
But, there you are. You don't talk about anything else in Edithburgh. At least, that is the impression I received. It may have been, of course, that I had specially mentioned my interest in this very necessary commodity. I knew that salt was life to Edithburgh. I knew there had been three companies operating there, I knew that the three had been merged into one. And I suspected, not unreasonably as it turned out, that as far as Edithburgh was concerned, the salt industry was not the flourishing thing it was eight or ten years ago.
It is a sad thing to sit back and watch a great industry die. In times gone by salt was a great industry in this part of Yorke Peninsula. Today it is moribund. Tomorrow, unless a miracle happens, it will be dead. Edithburgh expects that miracle to occur. The depression is not responsible for the slump in salt. In the first place, it set in years before we had any idea that a depression was anything more than something unpleasant which had happened in the past, but could not possibly happen in the present. In the second, salt is such a necessary article to the human race, and so absurdly cheap, that the depression would make little or no difference to its sale. Obviously the world is not using less salt today than it did. The explanation must lie somewhere else. You are not long in Edithburgh before you hear about salt. A few years ago it wasn't even necessary to hear about it — you saw it. If you went there in the summer months you saw salt everywhere. It was on the wharves, in the ships at the jetty, In the large refinery works close to the beach, on trucks along the road between the town and the lakes, and finally there were millions of tons of it in the two hundred odd salt lakes in the vicinity of Edithburgh and Yorketown. Edithburgh was the metropolis of the salt industry. Now there is none of that activity— or practically none. They still scrape a comparatively small quantity to supply the wants of certain markets which will not have other than Edithburgh salt. But the work is something in the nature of a pauper's funeral— hurry up and get it over.
Is the Edithburgh salt industry being strangled? I put that question to a number of people—official and unofffcial. The replies on both sides left me unconvinced. The unofficial section said it was. The official section said it was not. At the moment I am in no position to say who is right. All I can say is that the salt is still there, as much as ever there was, but the deposits are not being worked to any extent. You can judge the seriousness of the falling off for yourself. Here are the shipments for the past six years: —
1927 . . 24,000 tons. 1930 . . 9,329 tons. 1928 .. 20,829 tons. 1931 .. 8,860 tons. 1929 .. 13,389 tons. 1932 .. 8,400 tons.
Those figures give one furiously to think. Prior to 1929 three refineries, the Castle, the Standard, and the Commonwealth, worked independently. Now they have been merged into the Australian Salt Company. I am told that the bulk of the salt today is supplied from Geelong and Port Price. At the latter place the salt is evaporated from sea water. In one year after they started evaporating, the output at Edithburgh dropped 7,000 tons. I do not want you to imagine I am finding fault. What I do want to show is that Edithburgh got a pretty hard bump in the place she least expected to get it. I was told unofficially that the salt scrapers themselves were largely responsible for the collapse of the industry locally, because of the ever increasing demands of the unions. I cannot say if that is so. I can only give you the statement as hearsay. Leaving out the question of responsibility, assuming that it exists, the fact remains that over 200 lakes, containing some of the finest salt in the world are practically idle. Since the depression began there has been a little dabbling in salt on privately owned deposits by people who ordinarily would not trouble to harvest the stuff. But it is not sufficient to affect the prosperity of the district one way or the other. How Did It Get There? The salt In the lakes especially intrigued me. Like the puzzled old woman who saw the apple in the dumpling. I wanted to know how it got there. Why should salt heap itself up in great lakes over almost the whole toe of the peninsula, and leave other parts of the country comparatively free of it?
I put the question to a geologist. He overwhelmed me with the history of rocks from pre-Cambrian intrusions — if you know what they are— of 1,400,000,000 years ago to the Pleistocene period of a mere million years or so ago. I looked at him sadly, and departed. Seeing that he wasn't alive 1,400,000,000 years ago I couldn't admit that he knew much about it. At all events he never answered my question. These scientists are all alike. They can never tell you that a sausage is made of breadcrumbs and meat. They must always disguise the information under the form of "carnosity of the Ordovician period amalgamated with the product Triticum sativum." Do not imagine that I despise science. I don't. But I'd like to sub-edit certain of its apostles with a shotgun. Cut out the flummery, say I, and give us the kernel of your knowledge. We will all be the wiser for it. All this talk about Jurassic and Oligocene rocks, and Mesozoic and Palaeozoic periods can be eliminated in favor of the simple statement that the bulk of this salt is deposited on the earth in the form of salt dust from the air, largely through the instrumentality of rain. This is rather an amazing thing when you come to look into it, since in one of its saner moments science tells us quite simply that, with regard to these Yorke Peninsula deposits, an average annual rainfall over a catchment area of 160 square miles, gives 6,847 tons of salt a year. Rather staggering, those figures, to my way of thinking. When you go to Yorke Peninsula you must not despise salt. You will be seeing something in which South Australia holds premier place for quality. So far the industry has scarcely been developed. The manner in which salt is gathered is far from modern. Besides salt there is gypsum, and there is also brine. Where they had a combination of material like that in the United States, they would establish big modern factories on the site, not only to gather it up, but to manufacture it on the spot. We in South Australia are not yet awake to the advantages of things like that, but manufacturers would sooner handicap themselves by transporting raw materials over long distances than economise by establishing industries at the source of supply. But some day they will wake from their sleep in a hurry. Then things should move for Yorke Peninsula. Just now we are so steeped in centralisation that we want everything in the cities. We have not got to the stage when we realise that such a policy does not pay. Facts About Salt When you get down to rock bottom, and begin to analyse this salt business on the spot, you are liable to have your eyes opened. I knew, as everybody knows, that they produced salt on the Peninsula and other parts of South Australia as well. But I had no idea of the magnitude of the deposits, nor of the purity of the article raised, nor of the future that should lie ahead of the industry when it gets going on modern lines. There is no other part of the Commonwealth so climatically favored for the production of this material. When you set out to harvest salt from lakes the success of the venture rests largely upon solar evaporation. In the case of the Peninsula, Nature could scarcely have favored the industry more if she had asked for plans and specifications before taking on the job. The evaporation season extends from October to March, and during that period the rainfall is scarcely worth counting. What are the possibilities of this salt business?
Almost limitless — provided you have the energy and the enterprise to make use of them. Where you have extensive salt deposits you have all the paraphernalia for a whole chain of industries, and, as I said earlier, the proper place to establish them is at the source of supply. Salt is the parent material of sodium sulphate, hydrochloric acid, sodium carbonate, caustic soda, chlorine, hydrogen, and, indirectly, soap, glass, glycerine, dynamite, bleaching powder, and a host of other manufactures. I I do not think I could give a better example of the importance of salt to manufacture than to quote an extract from an article by Mr. Geoffrey Martin:— "A stoppage in our supplies of salt would cripple the house-building trade, because window glass would be unobtainable in quantity, since sodium sulphate or soda carbonate are used in glass manufacture, and these products are derived from salt. The production of explosives would suffer, because glycerine (and incidentally soap) would cease to be producible in quantity, and so mining operations would become difficult, and coal would become dear. The textile and paper trades would be crippled, because bleaching, sizing, cheap soap for scouring, and other necessary chemicals—all derived, ultimately, from salt —would cease to be obtainable in quantity. These trades would react on other trades in a way altogether difficult to see."Now, Now, who is prepared to turn up his nose at salt because it is retailed at something in the vicinity of a penny per lb.? And we have at least 15,000,000 tons of it in the three main lakes in this State! The highest export of salt in one year from Edithburgh was 80,000 tons. From that figure to 8,000 is some drop. Is it any wonder that the townspeople squirm? Edithburgh Not Bankrupt I have dealt rather lengthily with salt because in past years it was Edithburgh's staple article of export. But the town has more than one string to its bow. The collapse, of the salt industry undoubtedly dealt it a smashing blow, which made it see stars. But it was not a knock-out. There are still millions of tons of gypsum in sight at Lake Fowler, about which I will have something to say presently. And there is a large area of agricultural country which has never known failure since the introduction of superphosphate. Many wheat farmers in this district last season averaged eleven bags to the acre, and as for barleywell, you will not be in Edithburgh very long before you have been told half a dozen times that the peninsula produces the best barley in the Commonwealth. As a rule I do not use statistics. They are the driest things ever in- vented by man. But to show that Edithburgh is well out of the clutches of the Receiver in Bankruptcy, I crave permission to quote a few figures which I received from Mr. R. D. Patterson, the harbor master. They cover the year 1931-32. In that twelve months 187 vessels arrived at the port, representing in tonnage 48,819 net and 119,000 gross. The season's exports were (in tons):— Salt, 8,460; barley, 5,500; gypsum, 4,442; general, 15;050: lime, 284; wheat, 4,300; super, 1,200; sheep and lambs 2,800 head. Those are figures of which a district may be proud. I would like everybody to see them except the tax collector. He is not a friend of mine. Gypsum In association with salt, Edithburgh also has big gypsum deposits. They are not the largest in the State. That honor belongs to the Lake Macdonnell district, on the far West Coast, where there is an immense bed, estimated to contain 68,000,000 tons. Beside a figure like that Edithburgh's 1,686,600 cubic yards is an extremely modest figure. Nevertheless, the Lake Fowler gypsum industry is an important one. Gypsum is another of those commonplace commodities which we take for granted, and cannot very well do without. In the first place it is an important constituent of cement. Its use there is as a retarding agent. If it were not for the presence of gypsum, the cement would set so quickly that there would scarcely be time to mix it and place it in position. Incidentally it is also a medium for the production of sulphuric acid. During the war, when Germany found her supplies of this important chemical cut off, she was forced to have recourse to her gypsum deposits to meet her requirements. In the form of plaster of paris, gypsum is an essentially important factor in the building trade. Its use is involved in the construction of plaster walls, flooring, roofing, and wall tiles, hollow blocks, and fibrous plaster. Gypsum in its raw state is a well known fertiliser. It sets free the pot-ash, locked up in the silicates in the soil, and so renders it available as plant food. In the irrigated areas it frees the land of "black alkali" by changing the salt into sodium sulphate, and rendering it harmless to plant life. Other uses for this material are as flux in smelting, as a deodoriser, for the manufacture of crayons, in brew ing, and in the making of paints. We are apt to despise these common materials until we begin to enquire about them. Then we find they are more important than we thought. And that is true of a great many persons as well as things. Looking Round The Town Edithburgh specialises in returned soldiers as mayors. The present one, Mr. J. H. Richardson, is the third of that persuasion it has had. He served in France, India, Palestine, Egypt, and the North-West Frontier. He is a son of Mr. J. C. Richardson, formerly of the Education Department, whose articles articles in "The "Advertiser" many years ago had much to do with bringing under general notice the possibilities of the West Coast. The town clerk, Mr. P. L. Sayer, is also a returned soldier. He was badly wounded in the Big Argument. Mr Richardson is one of those sort of mayors who want you to see everything there is to see. That is the sort of man to have as mayor, for he is always full of enthusiasm for his town. Such men get things done. Edithburgh is called after a lady— Edith, wife of Sir James Fergusson, who named the town while he was Governor of the province. Lady Fergusson died in Adelaide in 1871. His Excellency's second wife, whom he married two years later, was South Australian born. She was Olive, daughter of Mr. J. H. Richman, a former Adelaide solicitor. She died in Bombay. One of the most interesting citizens to whom I was introduced was Mr. A. P. Lawson. He is an old sailor verging on ninety, home from the sea after a a chequered career. You would probably guess his age at seventy. He is full of stories. He came to Edithburgh in '74, when the town comprised Robert's store, the hotel, and one small dwelling house. White people were scarce and black numerous The town itself was mostly bush. The chief industry of that day was fishing. The fishermen would bring in half a ton of snapper at a time, and sell it to a Chinaman at £7 per ton. This bland child of the East used to salt and dry it, and sell it in Melbourne at £30 per ton. Mr Lawson told me another story connected with the early days of the Troubridge Hotel. On one occasion a number of sailors landed from a ship and went to the hotel, intent on having a night out. It proved a profitable one. When they got to the hotel they found mine host and his spouse both dead drunk, lying in the passage. A keg of beer on the counter had the tap turned on, and the liquid was running to waste. The party had a high old time at the hotelkeeper's expense, running affairs on the cafeteria principle of doing your own reaching. The owner was too dead to the world to take any interest in the proceedings. The climax came when a "hic-ish" group of marines concluded it was time to make for the ship. Roughly rousing the landlord they demanded why the so and so he hadn't given them change of the ten-pound note they had given him. Never suspecting that he was being tricked, the befuddled publican handed over the change for the money he never got. The sailors went off rejoicing. I mentioned Robert's store as the first in Edithburgh. Its founder, Mr. C. S. Robert, still lives in the town. The day I called was his 81st birthday. He gave me the outline of the beginning of the salt industry on the Peninsula. Mr. Robert was born in Guernsey. He came to South Australia in 1876. He was for many years Mayor of Edithburgh. The first man to get a salt lease, he told me, was Thomas Wood. He did not conduct scraping as a business, but merely scratched round his house when the inclination seized him. The real pioneers of the industry were the now defunct firm of Harrold Brothers. They started the industry by sending ships over for salt. The first ship to come, he thought, was the Karraweara. The superior quality of Edithburgh salt was not long in establishing itself, and the demand increased. This salt was not refined. But shortly after the advent of Harrold Brothers the first factory was erected by Henry Berry & Co. From then on the industry progressed until the maximum export of 80,000 tons was reached. When Mr. Robert went to Edithburgh kangaroos were plentiful about the town. The main road to Yorketown was merely a track through the bush. The streets were so rough that on one occasion when Mr. Robert was taking his two boys on the round with him, both youngsters were thrown out of the cart, and the father didn't know until his attention was called to the mishap by a spectator. An old stage coach used to maintain communication with Yorketown and Warooka. But perhaps the oldest resident of all is Mr. John Bramley. Arriving at Salt Creek with his parents in the cutter Endeavor when he was ten, he was in Edithburgh when it was just station property, and no one was living there at all. He was a station hand on Penton Vale, and later on Tucock Cowie. The latter property was owned by the Gilberts, one of whom (Joseph) gave his name to the suburb of Gilberton. Gilbert place in Adelaide is called after another brother (Henry), who had an office as a solicitor there. The last identity to whom Mr. Richardson introduced me was Mr. George Hart. Every horsey man knows George Hart. He owns Lone Star, and Lone Star has some reputation in the show ring as a jumper. Mr. Hart gives one the impression that he is one of those fortunate individuals who never worry. When I met him he was leaning against the corner of a shed on his farm chewing a straw, and watching a groom commencing the preparations which were to make Lone Star a fit and proper animal for the Royal Show. "Yes." he said, chewing his straw, and speaking absently, as if his mind was miles away from his subject, "my father was the first butcher in the district. He had to get his sheep from Port Pearce, because the station people wouldn't let him have any. You see, the stations didn't want settlers, and did their best to stop them." "We're going to have a wonderful season." I ventured, nodding towards the richly-grassed paddocks. For the first time he removed his eyes from Lone Star, and let them rest on the paddocks. "Don't know," he said, after weighing the matter for a moment. "We're not out of the wood yet." Mr. Hart is a typical farmer.
Relic of pioneer days. Old Edithburgh coach.
Stack of 1,200 tons of gypsum bagged for market. — Pocock, photo.
Salt-scraper at work on Lake Fowler — Pocock, photo.
Map showing the location of the 200- odd salt lakes on Southern Yorke Peninsula.
Mr. J. H. Richardson, Mayor of Edithburgh