A Catskill Catalog: August 6, 2008
My father was in the leather trade. His narrow wooden warehouse and office was on Gold Street, downtown by the Brooklyn Bridge, in an area of Manhattan known as the Swamp. As a small boy exploring piles of soles and heels and leather strapping, I never imagined the connection between that place in the city and my future home here in the Catskills.
While the Swamp was the national center of leather manufacturing and sale, the Catskills were the 19th century center of the tanning industry, a fact that had a profound effect on the nature of our mountain environment.
The preparation of animal hides for human use has a history that goes back to the beginning of recorded time. Skins were scraped, trampled upon, stretched, soaked, and smoked to make them pliable, durable, and useful. The ancient Hebrews discovered that soaking hides in a mixture of water and crushed oak bark made permanent, heavy, pliable leather. That ancient method became the standard for a millennium or two.
In 1800, Sir Humphrey Davy, an Englishman, conducted a series of industrial experiments to find alternate vegetable products that could be used to tan leather. Among other vegetable agents, Davy discovered that hemlock bark contained sufficient tannins to make durable leather.
Oak trees tend to grow in mixed deciduous forests: a couple of oaks, a few maples, some beech, a varied bunch. That reality made oak tanning necessarily a small-scale operation, often a backyard cottage industry. Hemlock, on the other hand, grows in extensive stands, its dense low-hanging canopy blocking the light, preventing other plant species from encroaching on the hemlocks’ territory.
When Hendrick Hudson’s men first saw the Catskills from the river, they called them the Blue Mountains, the extensive hemlock cover of our hills giving them a decidedly blue cast. The Catskills were full of hemlock, and entrepreneurs from the Swamp – long before my Dad – descended on the Catskills to take advantage of the plentiful hemlock so close to the city.
Their business plan was simple: bring the hides to the hemlock, using the Hudson River to transport raw animal skins to the mountains, many imported from as far away as South America. Once processed, the tanned leather would be transported downriver to the Swamp for manufacture and sale.
The first Catskill tanneries were established in 1817. Jonathan Palen set up a large tannery on the Kaaterskill Creek in Greene County, on a site that took advantage of both the hemlock forest and the stream’s waterpower for grinding the bark. The ground bark was mixed with water. Scraped hides, hairless, were soaked in that mixture, often warmed by wood fires to release the tannins, creating a hard, tough leather. That tannery operated until the 1850s. Today Palenville marks the site.
Colonel William Edwards also established a tannery in 1817 on the Schoharie Creek, the town that developed around his operation was first called Edwardsville and later Hunter. Other tanneries popped up in Tannersville (duh!) and Haines Falls.
Later, when the hemlock was used-up on the Schoharie, Colonel Edwards built a “Bark Road” through the Stony Clove to get at the hemlock that grew to his south. That Bark Road has become state Route 214 today.
The champion tanner, of course, was Zadock Pratt, who, in 1825, established his massive tannery on the Schoharie Creek in the place now called Prattsville. Pratt had grown up in the business, working in his father’s tannery, and operating, in partnership with his brothers, a small tannery in Lexington. His new operation was designed to be on an unprecedented scale, a kind of Wal-Mart of tanneries, with 300 soaking vats and a mill that ground a cord of hemlock bark an hour. In the 20 years Pratt operated his tannery he processed over a half-million hides.
By the 1850s, over 250 tanneries operated in the mountains.
The tanners decimated the hemlock forest. Bark peeling could only be done in the spring, when the connecting tissue between bark and wood was weak. Bark peelers would take to the woods for a month or two at a time, building hemlock huts from the denuded logs their peeling created, working from first light to last. It was hard, dirty, and odiferous work; it’s said one would smell a bark-peeler before one could see him.
While they seldom clear-cut, cutting and peeling only the largest trees, bark-peelers left the forest full of downed wood debris, inviting fire and rotting wood. Twenty years or so of working a hemlock woods led to depletion of the resource, deforestation, and a second growth forest that was quite different from the first. The Civil War created strong demand for hemlock-tanned leather, a red, waterproof, hard material suitable for rough use in boots and saddles. By the 1870s the hemlock was pretty well gone.
Soon after, an American chemist discovered that chromium salts made an excellent tanning agent, and the demand for bark diminished. Business continued in the Swamp, but the Catskills were no longer blue.