Tanning Hides Once Big Business

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

The tanning industry has been a part of Monroe County’s history since the early 1800s.

Because of the rich supply of both hemlock and oak trees, tanning became an important part of the area’s economy. Monroe County residents would often take their animal skins to local tanners to be turned into workable leather ready for market. While many area tanneries were very small and served the local community, some worked as large-scale businesses, producing leather for the national market.

One of the most important ingredients in the tanning process is tree bark. Harvesting the bark needed for tanning began in the early spring when sap began to flow. Men would go to the woods with axes to fell trees. Once the trees were down, the bark was removed, or peeled with special tools called bark spuds, peeling chisels, barking irons and barking axes in large four foot sections. The bark was left to dry completely before being loaded onto carts to be weighed.

It has been recorded that some dishonest Monroe County workers would try to sell wet bark or stack large stones within the layers of bark on the carts in an attempt to weigh down the cart for greater profit. The dry bark was then transferred to bark sheds at the tannery until the product was ready to be used in the tanning process. No part of the tree was wasted and the barkless trees left in the forest would be taken to a sawmill to support the lumber industry.

After storage, the bark was ground into small pieces and heated with steam so that the tannin in the tissues could be extracted. The tannin liquid would be collected and poured into large vats while the left over pieces of bark were returned to storage to dry for fuel to power the tannery.

The vats of tannin needed to be kept at a temperature of roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Animal hides were first placed in a solution of lime water to soak. Workers, known as fleshers, removed the hides from the lime water and used a sharp knife to scrape the remaining oils, flesh and hair from the hide. (Incidentally, the grease and hair left over from the fleshing process was sold to masons for use in making mortar.)

The hide was returned to the lime water for a few days, after which time it was placed in a “rocker.” The rocker machine mixed the hides constantly for 10 days in a weak solution of the tannin. After soaking in the rocker, the hides were transferred into a strong tannin solution for six to nine months. After soaking in the strong tannin, the hides were hung to dry, rolled, pressed and the leather was ready to be sent off to market. Hemlock bark tannins produced a dark brown color while oak bark tannins produced more of a light brown or gray color.

The Stroud family was the first in the area to own a profitable tannery. The Stroud tannery began circa 1820 and was located along the Pocono Creek. The Strouds eventually sold the tannery to DePue Miller in 1833.

By 1841, Jacob Singmaster had built a tannery near Miller’s tannery in Stroudsburg. In an agreement between DePuy Miller and Jacob Singmaster, Miller allowed Singmaster to “build and maintain a sluice or passage for the purpose of carrying away all the tan, lime water and dirty liquors from the tannery about to be erected, into the Pocono Creek.” A constant water supply was needed to run a tannery and in the early 19th century; there were no anti-pollution laws to protect the environment.

At one time, tanneries could be found all over Monroe County. Barrett Township boasted two tanneries, one in Mountainhome and one in Canadensis. Chestnuthill Township had one tannery in Brodheadsville and two in Effort. The Smith Gap Tannery in Kunkletown was Eldred Township’s only tannery while Hamilton Township had the Kester Tannery, Keller Tannery, and the Sciota Tannery. Middle Smithfield Township, Polk Township, Stroud Township and East Stroudsburg each had one tannery, the Resaca (Resica) Tannery, Kresgeville Tannery, Analomink or “Oak Valley” Tannery and Elkhorn Tannery, respectively.

Pocono Township had a tannery in Tannersville, two in Scotrun, and one in Bartonsville. Smithfield Township had three tanneries within its borders; two very small businesses and one larger one known as John Brown’s Tannery.