Potash. I’m sure it’s not something you think of when you think of our beloved state of Nebraska. Perhaps you’ve never thought of it. It’s not exactly like you make a trip to target to pick up some potash every week.
For a few years, the Antioch vicinity was one of the most important potash-producing regions in the nation. Antioch grew from a small village to a town of about 2,000. When the First World War broke out, the United States was cut off from European sources of Potash, which was a component of fertilizer used in the cotton belt. Two University of Nebraska graduates in chemistry developed a method for separating potash from the alkaline lakes of the Nebraska Sand Hills. Large-scale production began in 1916. The potash-producing brine was pumped from the lakes to reduction plants near the railroads. By the spring of 1918, five plants were in operation in this vicinity. Nebraska potash was used in the manufacture of fertilizer, epsom salts, soda, and other products. With the end of the war, importation of foreign potash resumed. Because French and German potash could be produced more cheaply than the Nebraska product, the Nebraska potash boom collapsed. The last Antioch plant closed in 1921. Today, the ruins of reduction plants and pumping stations bear mute testimony to the activity which once made Antioch a major potash production center.
Taken from Nebraska Historical Society
Rural Nebraska 2, Ellsworth, Sheridan County, Nebraska
View this marker’s location 42.069229, -102.5949
Click on that and a Google Map will come up and you can see the remains of what is left of Antioch.
You’re probably wondering what it potash is.
Potash is an alkaline potassium compound, especially potassium carbonate or hydroxide. It is most commonly used for fertilizer where potassium is deficient in the soil. A small bit of it is used in the manufacture of soap.
For a brief period in Nebraska’s history, potash was a pretty big thing. Unfortunately it was a flash in the pan.
The marker mentions “European sources”, which is interesting as it does not specifically say “Germany”. Germany was the primary source of potash throughout the world before the outbreak of World War I. With the war came soaring prices for fertilizer that was important to agriculture, especially cotton. The University of Nebraska came up with a way to distill potash from alkali lakes near Alliance, Nebraska where the town of Antioch once was.
The town of Antioch grew very quickly and soon became the major source of potash for the entire United States. By the spring of 1918, the town had a population of 5000 people – pretty impressive for that part of Nebraska in that timeframe. Potash factories were built on public land and leases provided to private companies. There was money to be made and lots of it. The Wikipedia page about Antioch states that there were public complaints about the methods used to obtain the leases. The Nebraska Secretary of State and Nebraska state land Commissioner issued a press release claiming that they had leased the land privately rather than public to avoid delay because “our country needs the product for munitions.” Potash is not used in munitions. It goes to show that politics is the same as it’s ever been – money changes everything.
I found a document from 2002 called the “Nebraska Historic Highway Survey”. Chapter 5 in this document is devoted to the “Potash Highway”. There is a map in the book of the Potash Highway; it stretches across the state from the southeast to the northwest (or the other way around depending upon where you’re from). There is detailed information in the chapter about the money provided to construct said Highway and it might shock you to find how little it cost in comparison to what today’s construction costs are when it comes to highways, bridges, and other infrastructure.
1918. A world war had just ended and the population of the planet would face a flu so virulent that it would kill more people than World War I. Roads are coming across Nebraska, real roads. Can you imagine what it would be an like to fight to make sure your town had a road built so that you could become economically viable?
What a time to be alive.