WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ga. – It’s been around for millions of years. It’s located between Augusta and Columbus and it’s a top commodity for Georgia. We are talking about kaolin or white dirt. While it’s mainly used for commercial purposes many people actually eat the clay.
Kaolin feels like clay with a smooth surface and experts say you should not eat this, but what’s interesting is that you can find white dirt in stores, sometimes right next to the fruits and vegetables.
Like wind chimes sounding at Hudson’s Farmers Market in Columbus. “It’s like awww. We got to have it. We got to have it.” You can also hear the sound of cashier Mary Ann O’Hearn as she describes the attraction to this, kaolin or white dirt.
“Their grand mothers used it. Their mother’s used it. It’s like a tradition. They got to have it.” Says Mary Ann O’Hearn.
Just like fresh fruits and vegetables, for ten years, she’s sold cases of white dirt for people to eat. “They tell me they use it to replace minerals in their body when they’re pregnant. I’ve had some tell me they use it for diarrhea. I’ll get something like this and just chew. It gets wetter and softer then you swallow.” Cassandra Hudson first tried white dirt in the 70s, at one point eating about 18 blocks a day. More than 40 years later, the Columbus native still craves it and remembers her first time.
“The first time I ate it it didn’t have a taste. I didn’t like it. My sister dared me and I ate it with a now later and I’ve been loving it every since.” Says Cassandra Hudson.
87-year-old Christine Scott tried it when she was 8-year-old. Not only did they eat kaolin, they also painted with it.
“She would grind it up and paint the fireplace with it. It looked pretty. Back in Biblical days people would eat it to settle their stomach.” Says Christine Scott.
Lee Lemke, Executive Vice President of the Georgia Mining Association since 1972, is an expert on the kaolin industry. He says people should not eat raw clay. “We highly don’t recommend it. You can become anemic and it can be damaging to the enamel on your teeth.”
John Lyles traveled to a 30 acre kaolin mining site in central Georgia. While some see this as a novelty, this white clay is more like gold in the form of big profits for the state.
Georgia’s kaolin is a $800 million a year industry providing 8,000 jobs with an average salary of $50,000. Sandersville, Georgia, in Washington County, was once called the kaolin capitol of the world. A lifelong Sandersville resident, Mayor since 2000 and kaolin industry retiree, Jimmy Andrews says white dirt attracted other businesses to the area.
“Washington is the kaolin capitol of the world. We have people employed from around the area. Its been the life blood of this area” Says Andrews.
It’s also a way of life for Johnnie Green. Eating white dirt givers her a rush. “It like eating a dessert.”
There’s a documentary produced on the phenomenon. Washington County has a kaolin festival in October and there’s Miss Kaolin contest. While it’s used in paint, rubber, and plastics the main purpose, paper used in magazines.
The Georgia Mining Association say there are 140 mines in the state enough to last 50 years. The industry also reclaims the land once it’s mined, using it for timber farms and ponds.