You may have heard of New York City’s MoMA, an icon of modernity synonymous with art and culture’s bleeding edge. But there’s another MoMA you should know about: a small-town, redbrick museum in southwestern Virginia that lays claim to 15,000 years of North American history by virtue of that classic of tableside condiments: salt.
Located in Saltville, Virginia, a town of 2,000 tucked away in southwestern Virginia’s Appalachians, the Museum of the Middle Appalachians (MoMA) is a many-layered paean to good ol’ sodium chloride, which exists in mind-boggling concentrations underneath the local valley. The story of that salt—and the tiny town that mined it—provides the museum with “a staggering story from the Ice Age to the Space Age,” says Harry Haynes, the museum’s longtime manager, a story that’s forced several expansions over the last 15 years and a recent overhaul of the exhibit spaces.
As soon as you walk into the main exhibit hall, past the gift shop on your right and the giant tusk in the cabinet to your left, you’ll see the start of a timeline that begins in the late Ice Age and swirls around the building, up through the present. About 15,000 years ago, the river valley became blocked off, morphing into a swollen lake. Fed by the area’s salty springs, the lake became a hotspot for Ice Age animals looking for a faux-coastal environment rich in tasty treats for herbivore and carnivore alike. As MoMA’s collection notes, they had everything: mammoths, mastodons, musk oxen, giant ground sloths, and even giant short-faced bears. To hit the point home, there’s a gigantic model of a mastodon skeleton in the center of the room. (Spoiler alert: mastodons were really big.)
The salt also made the area quite attractive to early human inhabitants. Keep in mind that your go-to corn on the cob topping was a crucial means of food preservation: Before refrigeration, salting and curing meats was one of the few ways of preserving them, sucking out moisture and making it difficult for any microbial baddies to survive. MoMA’s own collections, which highlight the late Woodland period (900-1600 AD) of native life, make it clear that Saltville’s native inhabitants grew rich off the salt, trading for beautiful necklaces of marine shells all the way from the coast.
But maybe you were lucky and spent Indigenous Peoples’ Day focused on the United States’ rich native heritage, so perhaps you’re in the mood for something different. If so, MoMA has you covered. Once Europeans settled in the region, they also grew to love the salt: Throughout the 1800s, the town extracted millions of bushels of salt, making it a key strategic asset—the “salt capital,” even—of the Confederate supply chain at the outbreak of the Civil War. The museum’s Civil War collection is quite robust, featuring everything from an original copy of Robert Lee’s General Order No. 9—which ordered Confederate forces to stop fighting—to incensed, mustachioed mannequins dramatizing the First and Second Battles of Saltville, fought in late 1864.
If you’re more of a tech-savvy type, MoMA has something to offer you, too: in the 1890s, several local businessmen went in on a newfangled chemical plant in Saltville, the Mathieson Alkali Works. The plant, which used the town’s ample salt supply to produce a wide variety of products, Haynes says, marks “the birthplace of the modern chemistry industry in America.” Soon after the plant came online, the town was making money hand over fist, morphing into the ur-company town by the early to mid 1900s. “This was the hub of the region,” says Haynes. “We had the best of everything: 450 company-maintained houses, best private school, best private hospital, swimming pool, golf course, semi-pro [baseball] team. We had it all.” The factory even produced hydrazine rocket fuel for the Apollo space missions.
In the early 1970s, however, Mathieson’s operations stopped because of environmental contamination—boo, mercury—that’s garnered the EPA’s attention ever since. The company town’s economy took a severe hit when the company left: Boldly, the MoMA’s exhibit claims that Saltville is “the town that ecology shut down.”
But just like its most self-reflective exhibits imply, MoMA’s very presence suggests an inner optimism, an ability to reuse and reinvigorate the past. Its original building was the local theater up through 1965, while its second building, acquired by the growing museum in 2004 and built back in the day by Haynes’ uncle, was formerly home to a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and a bowling alley.
Open seven days a week for 10,000 visitors a year, MoMA’s mission is to celebrate the region’s history: “It’s who we are, it’s what we come from,” Haynes emphasizes, representing past and present Saltville residents—the salt of the earth—to a tee.