Grandmom Beverly K in front of the ashery
Ammon in front of the ashery.
Cash Staple of the Community
So what is an ashery? “An ashery is just as it sounds,” says historian Steven Olsen, manager of the Historic Kirtland Restoration Project. “It’s a place where hardwood ashes were created, collected and processed. This ash was so vital to many manufacturing needs that it was a literal cash staple of the American frontier.”
The processing began with and relied upon a good supply of hardwood trees — beech, maple, elm — trees with a composition high in natural salts. Many a subsistence pioneer with a couple of acres of hardwood timber knew that the felled trees, whether sold as lumber or rendered into ash at the local ashery, could be that property’s first successful cash or barter crop. This gave many pioneers financial means to subsist through the early years of farming or other enterprise.
The rendering of ash into its end product — potash — was a demanding process that removed it from the capabilities of most humble landowners, however. This is where the ashery came in.
Once trees were burned to ash, large hoppers of raw ash would be leached with water, the run-off emerging as a caustic lye that would then be boiled down into “black salts,” or potash. Baking at an extremely high heat in an enclosed oven calcined the potash into “pearl ash.” This final product could then be sold as an essential ingredient to be used in the manufacture of alum, saltpeter, glass, soap, leather goods, gunpowder and paper, and in cotton and wool processing facilities as far away as England.
The most commercially viable asheries, according to historian Don Enders, were “those with capability to process large amounts of ash, a process requiring an on-site wood kiln for burning wood into ashes; hoppers for leaching lye; very expensive, very large kettles to evaporate the lye to potash; and an oven.”
While no photographs or drawings of the Whitney Ashery have been found, Enders says that descriptions of the foundation dimensions of the building suggest it was a large year round industrial operation for its time. “We have gathered enough documentation about asheries to give us a high degree of confidence that this restoration looks very much like the original,” he says. That the Whitney facility had its own kiln is suggested by a contemporary diarist who mentions paying for some other purchased goods with raw wood delivered to the ashery.
Enders says that perhaps the most vital component in the entire process was the potash kettle. Made of solid cast iron, a kettle could range between 40 and 54 inches diameter, be up to 11/4 inches thick and weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds. For the Kirtland restoration, craftsman Stephen Pratt and his team made kettles that are 24 inches deep, 40 inches across, just under one inch thick and more than 600 pounds each.
In these kettles the lye mixture would be heated over an intense fire to approximately 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a molten brew that would then be cooled into a solid mass of potash. Workers would then break the hardened mass into smaller chunks with an ax and sell it.
The Whitney Ashery and the other asheries in Kirtland enjoyed ready access to hardwood, a plentiful water supply, and a prime location near Lake Erie for transporting products to the eager markets on the East Coast and, from there, to European textile mills. In 1840, 153 tons of potash was produced in Lake County, Ohio — certainly a good portion of it in Kirtland.
With the discovery of large deposits of mineral potash and other alkalis in Germany in 1861, and later Canada and England, the age of the commercial wood ashery came to an end. Today the process that once turned wood ash into some of the most important products of the day is little known except as a folk-art. Once it helped keep an entire town alive.