The Tanning Industry in Sullivan County, New York



From, “Brass Buttons and Leather Boots: Sullivan County (NY) and the Civil War”

 James Eldridge Quinlan wote:  There’s an old saying, “The Civil War was won with the boots tanned in Sullivan County.”

 One hundred years ago the Catskill region of New York State produced more tanned leather than any other area in the United States. The five counties of Delaware, Schoharie, Ulster, Orane and Sullivan accounted for nearly one-third of New York’s annual leather output in 1860, according t “Report of the Growth of Industry in New York State.” $7,034,438 worth of tanned leather was manufactured in the Catskills, with Sullivan County accounting for half!

 The Union Army made most of its marches on Sullivan tanned red leather, drove most of their mules and horses with harness cut from locally tanned hides. Artillery horses, and other mounts were decked with saddles and harness made from Sullivan County leather. (The “red” of the leather came from the amber hued bark, key ingredient of tanning leather.) This Hickory-tanned leather was much better in quality than any leather produced today. It never wore out, was naturally was naturally water-resistant ane extremely durable in the field.

  The process of tanning leather began with a tool called a spud. This was a mattock-shaped tool, a hooked blade with a hardwood handle, made to cut into the slippery cambrium layer of the hemlock tree and slide along the trunk, peeling a piece of bark approsimately four feet long and from twelve to sixteen inches wide. The bark was removed from the butt to the fist limb. The rest of the tree was left to rot where it fell, though the hemlock is such a sturdy tree that many settlers came after the tanners and burned the trees to get them out of the way.

 Tanbark was ground in a water-powered mill, something like a huge coffee grinder. Then it was taken to a leach-house where it was mixed with boiling water and left to steep for about a week. The liquor was then ready to be piped to the tan-yards as needed.

 The hides were first put in vats in the beam-house, and left for approximately one week. Some weighed as much as 125 pounds. They were taken out, pounded until soft, and split down the middle into sides. The sides were taken to the sweat-pits and left for five to eight days, according to the heat. To know when the hides were ready to be taken from the sweat-pits, workmen rubbed a thumb over them. The odor on opening these pits was terrible, and the hartshorn made the eyes run. If hair could be rubbed off with a thumb, the sides were ready to be milled or pounded, to remove the bulk of the hair. Beam hands then went to work, using a flenser, worker and big knife to scrape and clean any remaining hair or flesh from the hides.

 Next the hides were treated to plumb them, opening the pores so the leather would take a tan. Handlers put them, one by one, flat, into a vat of weak liquor solution. A shovelful of tanbark was scattered on each side as it sank. This kept the sides from settling too close together. After three weeks the sides were turned over and the liquor was made stronger. Again, at the end of three weeks, the hides were changed and laid down in strong liquor for three months.

 This ended the tanning and the hides were put in a loft to dry. When dry, they were scrubbed and treated with fish oil and hung up again for a short time. They were taken down for the last time and treated with tanners’ oil and rolled for easier shipment  to market.

 Prior to 1830, the Catskill mountains were carpeted with trees. It has been described as ‘an unbroken blanket of green hemlock stretching to the horizen.’ Today, there are only a few stand of trees that are over 150 years old; the number of trees that old can be counted by the fingers of both hands. Between these two times, the tanning industry denuded the Catskills of their hemlocks.

 The first extensive tannery in New York State was built at Tannersville by Colonel William V. Edwards and his son William W., of Northampton, Massachusetts, in July, 1817. Soon after the Edwards tannery at Tannersville flourished, other tanneries were built and a very large amount of leather was made annually for a long series of years until the hemlock bark was exhausted.

 For example, the extraordinary Col. Zadok Pratt’s tannery at Prattsville used 6,000 cords of bark, tanning 60,000 sides of sole leather annually for 25 years. It has be estimated that it took a long ton of bark, 2,240 pounds to tan 250 pounds of leather. With a big tanneryoperation processing 30,000 sides of leather in a year, it is easy to see what happened to the virgin hemlock in the stands of the Catskills!

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