‘Hides, Hemlocks and Adirondack History’

Every now and then I pick a book off my shelf that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Sometimes a “while” calculates to a few years. A history may get a little older, but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile.

Such was my strategy this month. I read “Hides, Hemlocks, and Adirondack History,” Barbara McMartin’s compilation of the tanning industry in our region. “Well, that sounds like a page turner,” my skeptical wife commented. Actually, much of the time it was.

The first half of the book describes why tanning became such a factor in the Adirondack economy, then details the actual process. It doesn’t sound like a pleasant one. Skins had to be “fleshed” to remove fat, dipped in alkaline solutions for de-hairing, acidified for “bating,” , and finally soaked in large vats of tannin liquor for the actual curing.

Those tannins came from hemlock bark, a plentiful resource in the North Country during the nineteenth century. Teams would strip the bark from trees during the spring, then bind it; it took a cord of bark to tan just five hides. At the tanneries, the bark would be ground into a fine powder, then added to large vats of water. Skill and judgment was needed to decide when tanning was complete.

There were some big surprises in store for me. For some reason, I had expected the prepared hides would go mainly into gloves, belts, and other such products. Actually, most tanning in our region produced leather for shoe and boot soles. A fair amount also went for boot uppers.

Yes, gloves were made in a couple of places, most notably in Gloversville. Such production continued there and in other Fulton County villages for nearly a century. Another specialty output was book binding material, made from sheepskin at the Garner Leather Works in Lake Luzerne. The company also had a similar operation at Stony Creek, and an even larger one in Malone.

And here’s another of my misconceptions. The hides weren’t a byproduct of raising cattle for beef, or the result of trapping done in the great north woods. Instead the majority of hides tanned in the Adirondacks came from abroad, generally Central and South America. The transportation logistics had to be considerable; most tanneries were not located along major travel routes.

What made the industry finally disappear? Not a lack of hides. Nor, to my surprise, was it a lack of hemlock. Instead, tanning was more a casualty of national economic cycles. Most Adirondack operations had connections with brokers and manufacturers in New York or Boston. The trade was one of a commodity. When the national financial picture became clouded, it impacted jobs in such remote spots as Griffin and Olmstedville.

In the second half of the book, the author details operations in each county of the Adirondacks. Here eyes may glaze over a bit. I concentrated on areas I know well, like Clinton County (tanneries in Plattsburgh, Altona, and Ellenburg), Essex County, and Warren County. Although some tanneries developed company towns, very little remains. McMartin intrigued me with her careful descriptions of ruins still to be found in places like Griffin and Oregon, both in Hamilton County.

I’d recommend reading the early chapters, then scanning the remainder for what interests you. The book appears to be well researched, filling a void in my understanding of the North Country economy. It also suggested a few new hiking spots. That was sufficient to make the time worthwhile.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.