Tanning, which transforms perishable raw skins and hides into durable leather, derives its name from the use of the tannic acid found in tree bark. Tanning requires the scraping of hair and epidermis from skins, which are then impregnated by soaking in a tanning solution made of water and tanbark.
Tanning was once an important industry in West Virginia. The earliest tanneries were small enterprises. These tanners used the hides from cattle and sheep slaughtered for home consumption and the hides of wild animals, such as deer, groundhogs, and beavers. Oak and hemlock trees felled for lumber or to clear farmland provided tanbark.
By the middle of the 19th century, the first industrial tanneries appeared. Among the earliest and best-known was the Wheeling tannery founded in 1849 by John G. Hoffman. His Wheeling Centre Tannery produced heavy shoe-sole and harness leather. By 1876, the firm had become known as J. G. Hoffman and Sons. In 1870, there were 178 tanneries in West Virginia producing $840,245 worth of leather. Most remained small family firms with limited access to leather markets.
By 1880, as railroads penetrated the state, West Virginia tanneries became large operations modeled after tanneries in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Now 93 tanneries produced $1.45 million in finished leather. Pennsylvania and New York tanners came to the state to open branch tanneries, or they completely moved their operations to West Virginia as tanbark disappeared in their home regions.
By the turn of the 20th century, many West Virginia tanneries were concentrated in Hampshire, Hardy, and Tucker counties. Others operated at places in the Greenbrier Valley logging district, including Frank and Marlinton, Pocahontas County. U.S. Leather, the largest producer of sole leather in the United States, had operations in Moorefield, Paw Paw, Davis, and Lost City. In Buckhannon, Pittsburgh’s William Flaccus and Son in 1893 bought a tannery along the banks of the Buckhannon River and adjacent to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Until it burned in 1935, the Buckhannon tannery continued to provide tanbark and finished leather to the Flaccuses’ Pittsburgh operations.
West Virginia’s tanneries began to disappear in the 20th century as deforestation depleted local tanbark supplies. Although chemical tanning had been introduced during the last quarter of the 19th century, it had not penetrated the tanbark regions. Demand for harness leather diminished as automobiles took over the roads, and synthetics, such as synthetic rubber, cut into the market for sole leather. The Pocahontas County tanneries closed after World War II, and Paw Paw, one of the last U.S. Leather operations, shut down in 1951.
Written by David S. Rotenstein
Hoover, Edgar M. Location Theory and the Shoe and Leather Industry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937.
Tanning in the Virginias. The Shoe & Leather Reporter, 2/25/1892.