Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“one of the largest and most complete establishments of its kind in the world”

 

During the 1870s and the early part of the twentieth century, the hemlock sole-leather tanning industry boomed in northern Pennsylvania. As reported in the Scientific American, January 21, 1882:

From Port Jervis almost to Lake Erie, a vast industry is conducted in the manufacture of hemlock sole leather. It is only about twenty years since this region was first largely occupied by tanners. but there are comparatively few sections here now, throughout its whole extent, where tanners have not prospected, as it were, in looking out favorable locations for their tanneries. Every new railroad, and every minor branch of a road, running through land on which hemlock timber stands, has added new facilities for reaching the bark supplies necessary for the tanner. and many such roads have been built expressly for this purpose; but the supply is yet abundant, on going back far enough from the thickly settled portions of the country, and probably will continue to do so for at least a generation yet to come.

This photo essay portrays the operation of the Bruns­wick Tannery located in Morris/Hoytville, Tioga County. Described with detail in the Scientific American article. it was reported to be “one of the largest and most complete establishments of its kind in the world.” Located in the dense hemlock wilderness of Tioga County, it was estimated that the thousands of acres surrounding the tannery could yield from eight to fifteen cords of bark per acre; and, clearly such an ample supply was needed since each 150 to 175 pounds of good sole leather required about 2,000 pounds of tanning bark.

A Rare Overview of the Tannery

Besides bark, a tannery needed an abundant supply of fresh water and able laborers. On the right of this photo­graph, one of the few remaining of the tanning operation, one may note the clear waters of Babbs Creek flowing be­side the tannery. Left of center sits the large white square house of the superintendent; to the right, the three houses of his so-called “straw-bosses”; and then the company store and buildings for the company horses. In the foreground are several of the eighty company houses built for the laborers. Prior to the construction of the tannery, there were about 600 residents in Morris Township. During its opera lion from 1882 to 1912, the township’s population rose to about 1,800. When the tannery closed, the popula­tion dropped back to about 800.

A Shanty Camp of Bark Peelers

To supply the tannery with its bark, hundreds of men were hired to strip the hemlock-covered mountains of Tioga County. Many of the peelers were Yankee Ameri­cans but, in addition, the operation attracted hundreds of Polish; Swedish, Italian and Scottish immigrants. Though certainly the tannery business brought prosperity, it none­theless also raised concern among the ecology-minded people of the time. An article in a nearby newspaper, the Wellsboro Agitator (August 7, 1888), noted: ” … wherever there is hemlock the hemlock butcher is at work. The next generation will be compelled to import building lumber or substitute other building material. It is astonishing to see the rapidity of forest destruction. The wanton waste of the father will deprive the children of even a strip of material woods as a windbreak.”

Peeling Bark

Usually two individuals worked together. First a hem­lock tree was notched with an axe. then felled with a cross­cut saw. The fitter next trimmed off the limbs, ringed the bark in three to four foot lengths, and slit the sections lengthwise so that his partner, the “spudder,” could peel it. Once peeled, the bark was laid on the ground with the inside up so that it could dry somewhat before being hauled to the tannery. Bark-peeling tales were popular and claims of culling the largest hemlock were widespread. In its May 5, 1888 issue, the Wellsboro Agitator reported that one hemlock yielded thirty rings (120 feet) of bark for peeling.

An Occupational Hazard

After a log was peeled, it was very slippery and periodi­cally a “wet log” slid down the steep hillsides without much warning. The picture illustrates what happened when a fast-sliding hemlock struck another tree. No doubt the incident provoked much prejudicial discussion about the ethnicity of the woodsmen who may have been in­volved, especially if they were or Polish descent. An issue of the local newspaper dated April 26, 1881 reported: “Polan­ders have been seeking work as bark peelers … American woodsmen claim it is dangerous to work with them and sometimes drive them away … it is said Polanders fall trees indiscriminately, giving no warning.”

Hauling Bark

The task of getting the bark from a steep hillside to the tannery was in itself a challenge. A native lumberman, Willis Campbell, wrote in his scrapbook: “Three o’clock in the morning was none too early for the teamsters to start out, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures to drive five to ten miles, load the bark and get back to the tannery. Often it was dark before the bark was weighed and unloaded at the stacks.” Older residents of Morris Township recall that each wagon load of bark emitted a distinct aroma of its own.

Stacking Bark

There were days when hundreds of loads of bark would be hauled to the tannery. As shown in the picture, there were no elevators or other machinery available for the stacking. Instead, the bark was passed hand to hand to form the bark “ricks.” After stacking, the bark was covered and left to dry before use. Sometimes it stood for three or four years.

Inside the Tannery

After being seasoned for a few months, the bark was ground to about the size of grains of wheat and then com­bined wiU1 water to create a tanning liquor. The actual pro­cess of tanning hides was unique to each tannery, but essentially it involved a series of operations by which the hides were soaked and re-soaked in vats of hot tanning liquor. There were vats to soak the hair off the hides and vats of bark liquor to tan the hides. The production of leather occurred as the gelatine of the hides combined with the tannic acid of the bark. Periodically, a workman would be scalded by the hot liquors. In fact in 1891. one work­man died after falling into a boiling vat.

Prosperity in Morris/Hoytville

By 1900, the tannery was producing about 200,000 sides of sole leather. The “boom” supported many new businesses in the local community but none were more popular than the taverns. Newspaper stories periodically reported that “the serpent of the still” was biting many of the lumbermen and bark peelers; and, at one point, a news account concluded: “If liquor drinking and rowdyism is an evidence of growth and prosperity, then Morris must be growing more rapidly than any other locality in Tioga County.”

In any case, after thirty years of operation the hills were fairly barren of bark. So in 1912, the tannery closed down. Many workers disassembled their houses, loaded them on box cars and moved to places which still had ample bark and a prosperous tannery. Others, like Jim Powell, stayed and watched the tannery’s smoke stacks fall.

He recalls: “The stacks went up about seventy-five or one hundred feet so it would have been quite a job to take ’em piecemeal. So they chewed it over a while before they came up with a solution. What they did was they slowly removed the bricks at the base of one side and replaced ’em with wooden timbers. Then they soaked the timbers good with some kerosene or gasoline, lit them, they burned, and it wasn’t long before the smoke stacks fell. What a sight it was!”

Today the smoke stacks are gone and only a few founda­tion stones remain of what the Scientific American article had described as “one of the largest and most complete establishments of its kind in the world.”

 

Dr. Gale Largey is a Professor of Sociology at Mansfield State College and has directed socio-historical studies of four Tioga County communities: Roseville, Liberty, Morris and Wellsboro. The book on Morris Township, including sections on the tanning industry, is available from John Sommerville, Box 121, Morris 16938.