|Then & Now Nebraska’s Potash Industry |
When motorists drive out Nebraska Highway 2 through the Sand Hills, they will encounter a stark, unique beauty in the landscape and some of the strangest industrial ruins plopped down in the middle of the grasslands near Antioch. The ruins are what's left of a potash industry that thrived there for a few short years around First World War.
The story began in 1911 when Congress passed a law to have the United States. Geological Survey find sources of potash in the U.S. German sources were becoming expensive and politically unreliable.
Two college students, Carl L. Modisett and John H. Show began poking around the shallow lakes in the western Nebraska Sand Hills region. They collected samples of the alkali crusts around the lakes and did a chemical analysis. They found potassium concentrations as high as 35 percent.
The two students pooled their meager savings and explored several lakes around the area, camping overnight in abandoned sod houses. Their analysis was confirmed by the University of Nebraska and the Geological Survey. So, they began working out how they might mine and purify the potassium. They bought some old boilers and a pump, and in 1914 incorporated as the Potash Products Company. The next year, they started production. By 1917, they were producing 10,000 to 12,000 tons of crude salts a year.
The two former chemistry students and some of backers were suddenly making huge sums of money as farmers clamored for potash fertilizers. Modisett and Show became wealthy, while their shareholders were paid dividends each month equal to their entire original investment.
By 1918, 19 companies were in operation in the Nebraska extracting potash by evaporating lake water and collecting the potash-rich residue. Major plant components included tower evaporators powered by the sun or wind, concrete reservoirs, large steel steam evaporators, dryers, crushers, warehouses, railroad trestles, and a variety of shops and houses to provide for the needs of employees.
In all, the Nebraska companies were producing 53 percent of the entire potash output in the U.S. They were producing 28,800 tons of potassium carbonate each year.
But, it didn't last. When the war ended, Germany began producing and shipping potash again at prices below what it cost domestic producers to mine the element. From 128 companies producing potash in 1918, the U.S. wound up with only five producers in 1929.
Now, these massive concrete ruins in the middle of vast open spaces are all that is left of Nebraska's potash industry.