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This Museum in Grand Saline Encourages You to Lick the Walls

The Salt Palace celebrates the 20,000-foot pyramid of salt that lies beneath the East Texas town
Written by Wes Ferguson. Photographs by Michael Amador.

Girl licks the Salt Palace Museum wall.

Standing outside the Salt Palace Museum in Grand Saline, my wife leaned in close and stuck out her tongue. Then she licked the building.

Grand Saline is located in northeast TexasSalt Palace Museum

100 W. Garland St. in Grand Saline.


Open Mon-Sat, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
903-962-5631
grandsalinesaltpalace.com

“What’s it taste like?” asked Tomasa King, a museum docent. “Wow,” my wife replied. “That’s salty!”

True to its name, the façade of the Salt Palace is made of translucent blocks of sodium chloride, the mineral compound we use for everything from seasoning french fries to de-icing roads on wintry days. “Salt kills all germs, and you can’t grow germs on salt,” King says. “So you can lick the building. You can lick the big ton of salt out front. We don’t care, you can lick anything you want. We are fine with it.”

The salt found on, around, and inside the Salt Palace came from the ground beneath Grand Saline, a town of 3,150 people situated among the wooded hills northeast of Canton, about an hour east of Dallas. Grand Saline sits at the pinnacle of the largest and purest salt dome in the United States, which Chicago-based Morton Salt has been mining since 1931. It is hard to comprehend the vastness of this underground pyramid of white mineral, but seismic tests have shown the dome descends to a depth of 20,000 feet, and its lower base extends all the way to Louisiana, nearly a hundred miles to the east.

“We don’t care, you can lick anything you want,” says docent Tomasa King. “We are fine with it.”

“To put it in perspective for you, 20,000 feet is [nearly] the same size as Mount Everest,” says King, who notes that Morton has only mined the first 750 feet of the dome. “We could close down every other mine in the United States and produce salt for everybody for 20,000 years.”

detour grand saline salt palaceGrand Saline’s salt is thought to have been deposited eons ago, when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico submerged East Texas. As the sea receded, it left behind a bed of salt that was later covered by other layers of sediment. Intense heat, perhaps from a volcano, melted and purified the mineral, and over time, pressure from the heat and other shifts in the earth’s subterranean layers forced the salt upward, reaching the surface in a marsh on the southern edge of town. The Caddo tribe first harvested this salt as early as 800 AD by boiling water in the marsh. The area’s first commercial saltmaker opened for business in 1850.

While the Salt Palace is mostly dedicated to providing educational displays and videos on Grand Saline’s history of sodium chloride extraction, the museum also celebrates the town’s other contributions, showcasing mementos from hometown favorite Chris Tomlin, one of the world’s most influential Christian singer-songwriters; and fellow native Wiley Post, the first pilot to fly solo around the world. The city is also developing a more expansive salt museum, which will feature a simulated tour of Morton’s mine. King expects the new museum to open in the next two years, just a couple of blocks down Main Street from the Salt Palace and next door to Anklebee’s, a new restaurant whose Old West-style exterior of rough-hewn, repurposed lumber—complete with hitching posts—beckoned on a rainy afternoon last December.

Anklebee’s serves comfort food and baked treats at farmhouse tables beneath chandeliers cleverly fashioned from old, yellow hay rakes. We shared a made-from-scratch chicken-fried steak, which was lightly breaded and tender. After we had cleaned our plates, owner Angela Lee set down two slices of cheesecake drizzled with delicious fruit jams that she prepares fresh each morning.

Anklebee’s owner Angela Lee set down two slices of cheesecake drizzled with delicious fruit jams that she prepares fresh each morning.

Lee said she picked up the nickname Anklebee when she was a child. “My uncles were cowboys, and they had names for everything, and I was a little squirt, so they called me an ‘ankle bee’ because I was buzzing around their feet all the time.”

Dining options abound within a mile of the Salt Palace. They include The Feed Hut, a popular barbecue joint; Don’s Dairy Bar, an old-fashioned café in operation since 1960; Peralta’s Mexican Restaurant; and Salt Lickers, which serves up boiled crawfish and shrimp, fried gator tail, and pub fare like hamburgers and fried pickles. The newly renovated Grand Saline Hall and Historic Inn, also downtown in a two-story, painted-brick building, provides lodging one block south of the Salt Palace and a 15-minute drive from the flea market bonanza that is First Monday Trade Days in Canton.

The sign outside Salt Lickers restaurant

While shopping is fun, salt is essential. Until the 20th century, the mineral was one of civilization’s most valuable trading commodities, both highly sought after and fought over. Different varieties are prized for properties like color and taste. Himalayan salt is pink because it is rich in iron ore. Hawaiian black salt is infused with lava ash. The salt in Grand
Saline, 98.5 percent sodium chloride, is odorless and colorless.

“We have some of the purest salt in the world. Our salt is so pure that we are the only salt on pretzels in the United States,” King claims. “This is true. If you eat a pretzel anywhere in the United States, it’ll have Grand Saline salt on it because we’re the only people who make pretzel salt in the whole United States.”

Seismic tests have shown the dome descends to a depth of 20,000 feet, and its lower base extends all the way to Louisiana, nearly 100 miles to the east.

Grand Saline built the Salt Palace in 1936 to celebrate Texas’ centennial. Salt dissolves in water, of course, so rainfall eroded the building, and the city has rebuilt the palace three times. The modern incarnation was constructed in 1993.

When my wife licked the Salt Palace, I didn’t share her urge to partake, having already tasted the building during a previous trip. I did pocket a free lump of pure, local salt as a keepsake, however. Upon leaving the museum, we took a quick detour on FM 857 to view the white prairie marsh where the salt dome reaches the surface near the first bridge southeast of town. Continuing on our way, I realized I had been absentmindedly licking my souvenir as the East Texas scenery swept by. I popped the rock from my mouth and held it to the light, discovering that Grand Saline salt, when polished, shines as clear as crystal. 

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