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Gateway to the Mountains

George Wireman

Chapter 4: The Tanning Industry

The manufacture of leather by tanning skins and hides is probably the oldest craft associated with civilization itself. Leather sandals and other articles made from animal hides and showing the effects of tanning and curing have been found in Egyptian tombs that are more than 3,000 years old. According to existing records, the in-habitants of China and India knew how to make leather before they developed their system of writing, thousands of years ago.

When the early explorers reached the shores of the New World, they found that the American Indians were well versed in the art of tanning and that all of the tribes used the same method. The proximity of the rock oak in the adjacent mountains and the abundance of water made Mechanicstown a very favorable place for tanning hides. When Daniel Rouzer came to Mechanicstown, he brought with him the art of tanning leather and in 1793 he established the Rouzer Tannery, which became the first major industry in the community.

In the early days, the tanning industry was mostly centered in New York. The tanners making hemlock leather were located along the line of growth of that tree, which took them through Pennsylvania, lower New York, Michigan, and northern Wisconsin. The tanners using oak bark and chestnut wood followed a line through the mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The depletion in the supply of oak and hemlock bark and the virtual extinction of chestnut wood by blight, curtailed many tanneries. The early tanneries were small and established near the sources of the tanning materials. When the local supplies of vegetable tannis were exhausted, the tanneries were dismantled and moved to locations where supplies were plentiful.

Daniel Rouzer was considered an expert tanner and the Rouzer Tannery flourished for many years, providing employment for the citizens of this fast growing settlement.

Plank boxes were sunk in the ground for vats, and oak bark, containing tannin, was crushed by means of heavy stones. This was generally the only tanning agent used.

Tannins precipitate solutions of gelatin and of toker proteins, and when uniting with rawhide, form leather. Treatment of the hides with the tanning solution changes the protein in the hides so that they will be water-resistant and will not petrify.

Rouzer then suspended or deposited the hides in a successive series of vats containing tan liquor or ooze which was made increasingly rich in tannin. At first, the hides were frequently turned over in the vats, but this handling became less frequent as the process continued, until in the final vat the hides would rest for six weeks without being disturbed. When finally taken from the tan bark vat, the hides were then drained in a heap, then covered so as not to let in any light. After the draining process was completed, the hides were then suspended in a loft for drying, in which condition they form rough leather. When completely dry, the hides were then taken from the loft and dampened and softened in a water bath. Following this they were scoured to remove the bloom from the surface, then oiled and the entire surface worked over by pressure with a three-sided steel implement called a striking pep. After tanning, the leather was then dressed by the currier and leather dresser.

Daniel Rouzer took great pride in his work and produced some of the finest leather in this part of the country. His son, John Rouzer, took over the operation of the tannery in later years and became one of the leading tanners and influential citizens of Western Maryland.

A marble slab, used for an entrance walk to the property of George W. Wireman on Carroll Street, is without a doubt, the last remaining relic from the Daniel Rouzer tannery. This stone was used to smooth out the leather in the final stages of the tanning process and was brought to the Wireman property by George Stocks-dale during the construction of the house in 1874.

Although the Rouzer tannery was the first major industry in Mechanicstown, it was not the only tannery. In 1810 the Wampler Tannery was built and in 1820 Richard Jones of Baltimore established the Hunting Creek Tannery which featured some 200 vats and turned out more than twenty-five thousand sides of superior leather yearly. A year later in 1821, Samuel Stern built a tannery near the mountains.

Henry Rouzer established a tannery, located on East Main Street on the site now occupied by the home of Austin Bruchey. The bark sheds were built along the street and the vats were located to the rear of the property, which today serves as a backyard for the Bruchey residence.

By 1831 there were seven tanneries in operation, each producing a fine grade of leather and contributing much to the economy of this little, but thriving community.

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