The Origins of Gunther Salt
We trace the origins of Gunther Salt Company to the turn of the century, when two brothers, Beverly and Frank Myles, sank a shaft for the purpose of mining salt on Weeks Island, Louisiana.
When the salt mine was ready for production, the Myles brothers entered into an agreement with Henry M. Mun, head of the St. Louis based H.M. Mun & Co. brokerage firm, to begin marketing Louisiana rock salt. At about this time, Joseph J. Gunther became a partner in H.M. Mun & Co.
By 1902, the H.M. Mun & Company was jointly owned by Mun and Gunther. During these early years, the company was actually a "mercantile" business; it distributed not only salt, but a variety of basic food products.
Shortly thereafter, Joseph Gunther acquired Mun's interest in the company. Even so, the company continued to bear the "combined name" of H.M. Mun & Co and Gunther Salt Company.
Within a few years, the company name was changed to Gunther Mercantile and, eventually, to Gunther Salt Company, at which time salt became the sole product.
Gunther Salt quickly established itself as an innovator, becoming the first firm to sell Louisiana crushed rock salt from a St. Louis base. The company also had a prominent salt display at the 1904 World's Fair, introducing visitors to the purity and clarity of Louisiana crushed rock salt.
1930s & 1940s
Upon the death of Joseph J. Gunther in 1932, responsibility for running the business was assumed by two of his sons — 26-year-old Joseph F. Gunther, Sr. and 23-year-old Gerard K. Gunther. At this time, the company was operated from rental property on the Mississippi riverfront. Although records from this era have been lost, it is known that sales were quite small — the Great Depression was still ravaging the U.S. — and it was a struggle to keep the business whole.
In 1934, Gunther began shipping salt from Louisiana by water. A primary screened grade of salt called "mine run" was loaded into shallow draft barges at Weeks Island, Louisiana, and moved through a narrow intercoastal waterway to New Orleans. From there, the salt was transferred across the river to the Federal Barge Line in Algiers, Louisiana, and transported up-river to a terminal at the St. Louis riverfront, which is still in operation today. The salt was then unloaded and taken to the Gunther warehouse by rail.
A major redevelopment of the St. Louis Riverfront in the early 1940s spurred Gunther Salt to relocate to a four-story building at the corner of Chouteau and 2nd Street. The new building was adapted for the packaging and distribution of salt by constructing six 60-ton bins and installing a bucket elevator.
At this time, the company's primary product was granulated salt, which was received in bulk boxcars, moved by bucket elevator into bins, and then packaged from the bins into cloth bags (typically 100-lb bags). Packed bags were hand-stacked in the warehouse prior to shipment to customers by truck. Food grade table salt in the familiar round cans was also a fairly significant item, sold in the Gunther label, but packed by Morton Salt Co., at their Hutchinson, Kansas, plant. The market, then, became the neighborhood grocery story, which was found on virtually every street corner. Rock salt had yet to become a significant product for the company, but that was soon to change.
One of the major uses of rock salt since the early 1900s had been producing brine for ice-making and refrigeration. The development of mechanical refrigeration during the late 1940s caused a decline in the usage of salt for this purpose. By that time, however, an emerging demand for water softeners — which require salt for mineral regeneration — opened up a profitable new market.
Water softening required a low-cost salt product, ideally produced from the high-purity rock salt mines of southern Louisiana. Gunther Salt was well positioned not only for this development, but for an unforeseen new market for its rock salt: road de-icing.
1950s & 1960s
The market for de-icing city streets in winter was growing, and rock salt was an obvious choice for meeting this need. With the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, the demand for de-icing rock salt would grow dramatically.
The mid-1950s saw two more family members come into the business. J. Barry Gunther (son of Joseph F.) and Gerard Gunther (son of Gerard Sr.), following military service, took positions at Gunther Salt, both spending their time exclusively in sales. By 1959, the company had three other salesmen: Fred Kramer in southern Illinois, Cecil Banta in outstate Missouri, and Elzie Gardner in central Missouri. Banta and Gardner sold salt products primarily from the Morton granulated plant in Hutchinson, Kansas, and the Independent Salt Company rock salt mine in Kanopolis, Kansas. Both plants packaged salt in Gunther-branded bags, as well as processing bulk shipments to Gunther accounts. At this time, the company's annual sales were in the range of $1,500,000.
With the growth of the rock salt business in the early 1960s, the company found itself in need of more storage capacity. This was filled with the acquisition of a former City Products ice-house at the corner of 6th and La Salle Streets. This represented a major improvement, since the building could accommodate about four barge-loads of salt (approximately 6,000 tons).
Although the major market for tonnage sold out of the warehouse was limited to a 50-mile radius, the outstate business was steadily growing, thanks to municipal water-softening and water-softener dealership expansion. Rock salt was still virtually the only product used by these markets.
In the late 1960s, alternative salt products for the water softening industry came into the market in the form of granulated pellets and "pseudo"-pellets. Though priced higher than rock salt; these products boasted greater purity and "100%" solubility compared to rock salt. These products made significant inroads into the market and were promoted aggressively by their distributors. A short time later, solar salt began to appear on the market, soon establishing itself in the hierarchy between rock salt and evaporated (pellet) salt.
As the 1960s drew to a close, St. Louis boasted warehouses owned by four major salt companies: Gunther Salt Co., Morton Salt Co., International Salt Co., and Hardy Salt Co.
1970s & 1980s
In the early 1970s, Gunther Salt was approached by Diamond Crystal Salt Company of St. Clair, Michigan to be the exclusive distributor for their products in a wide geographic area of the Midwest. Gunther Salt agreed, entering into a ten-year arrangement that would prove both beneficial and profitable. It also represented the first time the company marketed products that didn't carry the Gunther brand identity.
The 1980s saw consolidation in the salt industry. St. Louis-based Hardy Salt was acquired by Diamond Crystal Salt, which was itself then acquired by International Salt. Soon, International Salt was purchased by the Dutch chemical company, Akzo. A Louisiana rock salt mine that had been developed jointly by Carey Salt Company and Monsanto was acquired by Domtar, a Canadian chemical company; the purchase price of the mine was $9 million. Before the end of the decade, Akzo's U.S. salt business was acquired by Cargill.
The 1980s also saw a new player enter the market. This was entrepreneur George Harris, who created the new North American Salt Company out of an assemblage of assets comprising the American Salt Company evaporated plant in Kansas, the Louisiana Rock Salt mine owned by Domtar, and a solar salt producing plant at the Great Salt Lake.
In 1985, Gerard Gunther, Jr. and Barry Gunther purchased from their fathers the operating assets of Gunther Salt Company. Under the new ownership, the process of expansion and property acquisition begun decades earlier continued. Through the rest of the 80s and into the 1990s, the company acquired both land and buildings; the most significant purchase was on Buchanan Street, where a new 12,000-ton capacity salt dome was built. Gunther's acquisitions also included expanded warehousing and truck scales, as well as exterior space for over 50,000 tons of bulk ice control salt.
Also in 1985, Gunther Salt Company relocated. The St. Louis riverfront has been home to Gunther Salt Company since the 1940s, when offices moved to the corner of Chouteau and 2nd Street near the south leg of the Gateway Arch. In 1985, the company relocated to 101 Buchanan Street, which is two miles north of the Arch and just north of downtown.
1990s to Present Day
Current Gunther Salt Company President, John Gunther, joined the company in 1991.
By the mid-1990s, the surviving major national salt producers in the U.S. were Morton, Cargill, and North American. A smaller regional producer was United Salt Company of Houston, Texas (a privately-owned producer of evaporated salt and solar salt). The primary effect of this consolidation on Gunther Salt Company was that the number of its potential suppliers was reduced from five to three, which made for a more difficult competitive environment.
In 2002, Gerard Gunther, Jr. bought out the interest of Barry Gunther and became the sole owner of Gunther Salt. By then, Gerard, Jr.'s sons, Gerard III and John, were also employed by the company. Four years later, in 2006, the company purchased the adjacent Morton Salt Company warehouse, bagging line, and salt dome. This gave the Gunther Salt Company facility a total operating area of 11+ acres along with some 100,000 sq ft of storage buildings, which it maintains to this day.
In 2006, Peter Gunther, the youngest of Gerard Jr.'s three sons, began working at the company. In 2010, Gerard III, John, and Peter bought out Gerard Jr. who now serves as a consultant to Gunther Salt Company.
Today, Gunther Salt Company has three salt domes, three warehouses, and two packaging lines, comprising a total operating area of 11+ acres along with some 100,000 sq ft of storage buildings. Gunther Salt Company's plant is conveniently located just off Interstate I-70 and in close proximity to Interstates I-44, I-55, and I-64.