Antioch potash plant
The Antioch potash plant is shown as it appeared after World War I as the demand for the chemical began to fall and many of the area plants began to close. (Courtesy photo) IMAGE SERVICES

 

In August, world mining giant BHP Billiton announced it was offering $40 billion to purchase a Canadian potash producer, which would instantly cause the company to "control about 30 percent of the world potash" production.

Potash, once called "sandhills gold," is mostly potassium carbonate, is a primary source of potassium, and is one of the world's most common elements. Although there are many uses of potash, from soap to glass, the primary demand comes as a component in agricultural fertilizer.

The main source of potash comes from "sedimentary salt beds remaining after the evaporation of ancient seas." Before World War I, 90 percent of the world's supply came from Germany.

As early as 1912, large concentrations of potash were found in the unpotable water of a number of Nebraska Sandhills lakes. Two men, Show and Modisett, began selling potash to Omaha meat packers, harvesting the potash by evaporation from Jesse (Jess) Lake. But production was small, and German imports were still far cheaper.

With the beginning of war in Germany, their exports stopped while the demand for cotton, primarily from southern U.S. states, increased due to its use in not only fabric but the explosive guncotton. Because the cotton crop required potash fertilizer, which could no longer be imported from Germany, the chemical's price increased tenfold while U.S. production grew 300 percent from 1916 to 1917 alone.

Suddenly, Sandhills production of potash blossomed, and because many of the lakes were on state school lands, lease payments for mineral rights pumped new money into state school funds. The town of Hoffland popped into being while the villages of Antioch and Lakeside grew at explosive rates.

The production of potash in Nebraska, though still harvested by evaporation, was expanded and refined. Brine was pumped from sand point wells beneath the lakes and transported to production sites near the railroad through wood pipes. Reduction through solar, air towers and coal- or oil-fired boilers increased production at highly profitable rates.

Ten factories centered in Garden, Morrill and Sheridan counties, with five in the Antioch, Lakeside, Hoffland area operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1918, 53 percent - some said as much as 75 percent - of the U.S. production came from Nebraska.

Between official U.S. census reports, Antioch's population grew to an estimated 3,000, a 20-fold increase, and Lakeside to 550. Antioch alone claimed two banks, a hotel, four restaurants and many retail stores, and a road being developed between Alliance and Grand Island was named the Potash Highway.

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With the end of WWI came a drop in demand for fertilizer, which coupled with an increase in the price of coal and oil necessary for the reduction process caused profit margins to shrink to the point of an economic loss.

In 1919 much of Lakeside's Main Street was destroyed by fire, and by the next year only the Potash Reduction Co. of the original 10 was still in operation. One Antioch plant was sold at a sheriff's sale in 1921 for just over $30,000, and at the end of 1922 even Potash Reduction Co. had closed. In 1927 Hoffland's post office closed, and by the 1950s little was left of Antioch.

The skeletal remains of the Antioch plant, visible north of Highway 2 (no longer called the Potash Highway), were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Currently 80 percent of the U. S. production of potash comes from New Mexico. The largest exporter of potash today comes from the Canadian mines now in the process of being sold.

As the control of potash production moves toward a company known for its ability to push prices of minerals to ever higher plateaus, one wonders if Nebraska might again be able to produce potash at an economical and commercially profitable rate.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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