The Catskill Tanning Industry

By Augustus Ostow

The tanning process

 The tanning industry of the nineteenth century Hudson Valley took raw animal hides, which were sourced internationally, and produced treated leather. Any tanning before the early twentieth century required some sort of acidic chemical, typically derived from a plant, to fuse the protein fibers and produce usable leather.[1] Tannin is one of the most commonly used acids used for the tanning process (what a coincidence). The tannin is used to make a tanning solution to soak the hides for up to six months.

A brief history of the tanning industry 

The Catskill Mountains proved to be the ideal bed of the early American tanning industry because of the intersection of two key requirements. Firstly, the main source of raw animal hides was international, so there had to be an easy way to transport them to the tanning sites. Secondly, as noted in the previous section, a thriving tanning industry relies on a rich source of a tanning acid. The Catskills once were thick with the eastern hemlock, whose bark provides tannin upon a water extraction. The growth of the tanning industry was a result of the combination of the hemlock forest and proximity to the Hudson for easy water transport of hides from the south.

Tanneries in the Catskills began popping up during the early nineteenth century. In 1817, a tannery opened by Jonathan Palen spurred the growth of the tanning industry. He acted as the model for the model for a successful tanning factory by combining proximity to utilizable hemlocks and water power, which was essential to grinding the hemlock bark to extract the tannin. After Palen demonstrated his success, quite a few other independent industrialists opened their own tanneries in the area.[2]

The picture of success was a young man named Zadlock Pratt. He opened his first tannery in Pratsville in 1825. He built a very large tannery building and mill, which could operate on a huge volume of hides and hemlock bark respectively. His extremely large volume allowed him to afford transporting hides from greater distances, but at lower prices. He was continually tweaking the tanning process to produce optimal output. The weakness of Pratt’s successful business model was the inevitability of running out of hemlocks, his vital source of tannin. Tanning no becomes longer profitable when the efforts to fell hemlocks and collect bark become too great. His great tannery in Pratsville could only run until 1845 when there was no more hemlock within a ten mile radius.[3]

The other tanners of the region shared a similar fate. Without easy hemlock, the Catskill Mountains were no longer such a profitable place to tan hides. By the mid nineteenth century, tanneries were closing left and right. The overall average lifespan of Catskill tanneries was only thirty-two years.[4]

The death of the Catskill Tanning Industry was cemented by a new, more modern, method for tanning was introduced in the late nineteenth century. Instead of using vegetable acids, this new method used artificial chromium salt chemicals to treat the raw hides. Hemlocks were no longer a necessity for the tanning industry. The day of the Catskill tanners had ended. 

The hemlock peeler’s life

The hemlock peelers were the backbone of the tanning industry. Due to the high demand for the hemlock bark’s tannin, many could find temporary or permanent work in the Catskills. Every spring, groups of peelers would make camp in the Catskills. Some of the larger camps lasted as long as several months.[5] Peeled bark had to be transported to the tanneries along bark roads later in the season. Some families of peelers even lived together in log cabins. Ernest Ingersoll, a journalist, describes them as a jolly, happy bunch of hardworking people.[6]

Ingersoll’s description is most likely accurate based on his experience, but he does neglect to mention the fundamental nature of a bark peeler’s work. It is grueling, seasonal work to get by. Work was inconsistent and dynamic of location. Peelers lived where there were still hemlocks. Hemlock peelers may have been upbeat as Ingersoll described, but perhaps the lifestyle was not as happy go lucky as portrayed in his article.

Environmental impact

The tanning industry may have been a force of development in the Catskill Mountains, but at what cost to the natural world? The most obvious impact was the rampant deforestation of the previously thick hemlock tree. Bark peelers would fell all of the easily accessible hemlocks with a greater than fourteen inch circumference within miles and miles of every tannery. An interesting common misconception illustrates the extent of the deforestation. Many believe that hemlocks can only grow on the steep bits of the mountains or in swamps, but this is not actually the case. It just so happens that those areas were difficult to access for bark peelers to access.[7] The tanning industry shaped the some’s view of hemlock’s natural growth environment.

An additional environmental concern was the common forest fires caused by the industry. The bark peelers would leave the refuse of their peeling in the woods. There were at least thirty major forest fires in the area in thirty years. This dry tinder was a huge risk. The thick smoke from Catskill forest fires was known to occasionally be visible all the way in New York City.[8]

Tanning factories also produced large quantities of pollutants. Factories simply emptied their used tanning liquid into the local streams, which was a blight on the scenery and disturbed wildlife. The tanning pollutants emptied affected streams of fish. Additionally, The tanning industry’s disregard for the environment negatively affected tourism. The idyllic wilderness was no longer the same, at least temporarily, thanks to the pollution.[9]

The environmental impact of the tanning industry was not entirely negative. The pollution and deforestation may have harmed the Catskills ecologically, but from a human lens, there were certain benefits. The bark clearings, which were made by the peelers, created ideal spots for tourists. Our conception of the Catskill wilderness includes the artificial clearings of the tanning industry.

First ruins

America was a fresh nation. It lacked the vestiges of Western settlements past. Although Native Americans had been living the land for millennia, the new Americans could not look back at the ruins of their own civilization in the same manner as the Europeans.

The abandoned tanning factories, villages, and peeling settlements are remembered as the first ruins of the Catskill Mountains. The impermanence of the tanning establishments cannot be overstated. The industry could only last as long as the trees it cut. Villages that sprang up around the initially lucrative factories were abandoned as quickly as the factories themselves. The tanning industry left behind ghost towns. People lost their homes and livelihoods while others gained picturesque ruins.

Whether for good or bad, the tanning industry molded the Catskills.

 

Bibliography 

Kudish, Michael.  The Catskill Forest: A History. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2000.

Stradling, David. Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. Print.

Ingersoll, Ernest, “At the Gateway of the Catskills,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 54 (May 1877): 822.

Ingersoll, E. (1889, The hemlock-peelers. St.Nicholas; an Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks (1873-1907), 16, 590-590. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/137944261?accountid=14824

 

Footnotes:

[1] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/582713/tanning

[2] David Stradling, Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills (Seattle: University of Washington Press), 29.

[3] Stradling, Making Mountains, 30.

[4] Michael Kudsih. The Catskill Forest: A History, (New York: Purple Mountain Press), 58.

[5] Stradling, Making Mountains, 31.

[6] E. Ingersoll. “The Hemlock-peelers”, 3.

[7] Kudsih, The Catskill Forest, 56.

[8] Stradling, Making Mountains, 32.

[9] Stradling, Making Mountains, 34.

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