The Tanning Industry

(Compiled from numerous sources)

               Tanning is the process of turning hides and skins into leather. The hides and skins of domestic animals are the main source of leather. The skins of large animals such as cattle and horses are called hides. Those of smaller animals such as sheep, goats, and calves are called skins. The kind of tanning done in Warren County is called vegetable tanning. It is a slow process and involves the chemical substance tannin, or tannic acid, which is taken from the barks of trees. Vegetable tanning is used for products such as shoe soles, luggage, saddles, and belts.

               The hides were first kept for several days in a vat in a solution of water, salt, and hen manure. Then they were removed to another vat and thoroughly washed and rinsed in clean water. After that, they were ready to go into the big vat for a long soaking of six months or more in tannic acid. The tannic acid was made by grinding hemlock bark until it was about the size of grains of wheat. A layer of the bark was spread on the bottom of the vat, then a hide, then another layer of bark, and so on, until the vat was filled. Then, water was poured in to cover the top skin. The hides were examined from time to time during their half-year immersion. if necessary, more bark was added.

               After the long soaking, the hides were washed in clear water. Fat and bits of tendon were scraped off with a fleshing knife. They were washed again and then aired over poles in a drying loft, or in a separate building for that purpose. The drying process had to be slow, and yet, not so slow that the hides would mold. When thoroughly dry, the leather was scraped again, and rubbed with a mixture of tallow and neat's foot oil. It was usually a year before the farmer could depend on getting his leather after he took in his hides.

               If the leather was to be used for harnesses or saddles, it was soaked in a vat of tannic acid made from oak bark, rather than hemlock, as that was thought to be superior.

               The first tanner in Warren County was David Brown, who set up a small plant in Warren in 1804. He later moved it to Sugar Grove, as the population was greater in that area.

               Most Warren County tanneries were located along the Tionesta Creek because of the availability of water and hemlock trees in that area. Sheffield is best remembered for the large number of tanneries in that area. The businesses of Horton and Crary are especially important to Sheffield history and the tanning industry of Warren County.

Additional Resources:


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society