In 1870 Pennsylvania had 890 tanneries. Tioga’s tanneries, like most of those that were scattered throughout the region, were mainly devoted to the production of sole leather and coarser leathers (the latter used in factory leather belting and harnesses in the nineteenth century). They were located close to the region’s rich forest resources, since tanneries were normally dependent on ready supplies of bark, usually obtained from oak or hemlock trees. Because the stately hemlock produced inferior lumber, the wood was frequently left to rot after the tannin containing bark had been removed. Later in the nineteenth century hemlock was used for paper pulp, rough construction work, and boxes. High levels of production led to the rapid exhaustion of the region’s forests and widespread pollution of streams and rivers of the region from toxic effluent.
In the final decade of the nineteenth century, a major consolidation movement led to the closure of over a third of the state’s tanneries, but employment and production remained strong; the number of employees in the industry rose, as did sole leather output. In 1900 Pennsylvania was the number one leather producing state with over one quarter of the national output.
By the early decades of the twentieth century, the tanneries of northern and western Pennsylvania came to be generally owned by large companies that operated more than a single plant, companies such as the Unites States Leather Company, Howes Brothers, Horton Crary and Company, and the national meat packing giant, Armour. These firms, and others not quite as large, processed 600,000 hides annually around 1900, and consumed more than 50,000 cords of hemlock bark (requiring the logging of 5000 acres a year). Many, like Horton Crary and Company (HCandC), owned huge tracts of forest land to guarantee constant access to tanbark; HCandC owned 125,000 acres.
Most of the tanneries of Tioga and adjacent counties dominated the communities that surrounded their plants, and almost all of these communities were conservative and union-free. Elkland, a little more than a mile south of the New York-Pennsylvania border, was quite representative of many of the sole leather tanning towns of the region. It was a company-dominated town, with most of its adult males employed by the Elkland Leather Company–in the 1920s and 1930s, one of the largest sole-leather tanneries in the world. The company, in the late 1930s, employed around 1000 of the town’s then 3000 inhabitants; it ran a company store, owned over a hundred houses which it rented to workers, provided medical services (which it charged for out of deductions from worker paychecks), and sold electricity to employees and the community generated in its subsidiary, the Elkland Electric Company.
Like other nearby tannery towns, it remained for many years free of any union activity. But during the New Deal era, organizers began to target the firm for organization. The company took a firm anti-union stand from the beginning, warning workers that the tannery would be shut down if organizers made any headway. Local community dignitaries attempted to convince the union to leave, and soon afterwards – for reasons that are still unclear – the United Leather Workers organizer left town.
The National Leather Workers Association came next to try its hand at organizing the tannery – with little success. A union-led strike in the summer of 1937 for a wage increase, a 40-hour work week, and union recognition was defeated. In 1940, however, after the merging of the NLWA into the International Fur and Leather Workers Union-CIO, the open-shops regimes of western Pennsylvania began to crack. Union elections in September of 1940 transformed the Franklin tannery in Curwensville (in Clearfield County), and the Mt. Jewett Tannery in McKean County – both controlled by Howes Brothers – into union shops. U.S. Leather plants located in Wilcox and Ridgway (Elk County, just south of McKean Co.) were also successfully organized by the IFLWU, as were other sole leather tanneries in region.
By this time, however, the Pennsylvania leather industry was in decline. Tanneries no longer had to be located near forests because of new mineral-based tanning and the development of tanning extract that replaced bark. The leather industry now located close to sources of hides, which were a by-product of the Midwestern meat packing industries. After World War II, Pennsylvania had only fifty-nine tanneries and produced ten percent of the nation’s leather and leather products.
By 2000, in spite of the closure of many of the state’s tanneries and the overall decline of the industry throughout the nation, northern Pennsylvania counties – including Tioga – remained significant centers of leather tanning. Pennsylvania remained the nation’s largest employer of tanners, with over 2,300 workers employed in the trade.
Beyond the Marker
Philip S Foner, The Fur and Leather Workers Union: A Story of Dramatic Struggles and Achievements (Newark: Nordan Press), 1950.