History of Tanning in Buffalo

In the nineteenth century, the tanning process involved many steps through which raw hides were processed into reddish brown leather.

The flesh needed to be removed from the hides and then they had to be depilated to strip away all hair before they were placed together with acidic tanbark (ground tree bark, typically oak) in pits for several months or sometimes even up to two years.

After cleaning and drying the tanned hides, they would be smoothed and dubbined with tallow or oil to condition the hides or colored.

The tanning business required sufficient capital reserves to allow the tanner to process the raw material for at least a year before the leather would be ready for sale.
- Immigrant Entrepreneurship: Jacob Frederick Schoellkopf online April 2018)

The text below is an excerpt (pages 8-9) from
The Beginnings of Buffalo Industry
By Robert Holder
(online August 2013)

The presence of easily available hemlock in the bordering forests made tanning one of the most important early Buffalo industries. The site of the first tannery, established in 1812 by Samuel Edsall, was located at what is now the corner of Niagara and Mohawk Streets. This building was used by the British General Riall as his temporary headquarters during the burning of Buffalo in 1813.

A sizeable tannery was started by George Palmer in 1828. He came to the area with the rather large sum of $15,000 to begin his business and bought land near Seneca Street. The water power from the newly- constructed Hydraulic Canal, had attracted him to this rather unlikely location. The marketplace for the finished leather that he made was on Main Street. This was the same George Palmer who later was to become President of the State Line Railroad, President of the Marine Bank, and one of the incorporators of the Union Iron Works.

The Rumsey name stands out in Buffalo's early leather industry. Aaron Rumsey, whose family was familiar with leather manufacturing for generations, started business locally in 1834. After building up a sizeable leather  business, Aaron  died in 1864.   His two sons, Bronson and Dexter Rumsey, further advanced the tanning business. By 1884 their Buffalo plant and the Holland, New York plant turned out 200,000 hides a year. By 1904, when the firm was taken over by the United States Leather Company, it was classified as one of the leading industries of that type.

Jacob F. Schoellkopf immigrated to Buffalo from Germany. In the year 1834 he opened a modest leather store on Mohawk Street. Jacob started with the purchase of a small tannery in what is now Hamburg, New York - called White's Corners in those days. He established a sheepskin tannery in Buffalo in 1846 and kept enlarging his operations until he eventually owned tanneries in Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities. At the time of his death, in the year 1899, every variety of leather which could be made from sheepskin was manufactured in the Schoellkopf plants. Sales agencies in South America, England, and France were maintained by the enterprising tanners.

Weed and Company, originating in 1818, and Beals, McCarthy, and Rodgers both wholesaled leather goods such as belting. Belting manufacturing became important when industries added more machines. Large supplies of belts were needed to harness power for turning machine wheels.

The first shoe factory in the city of Buffalo was established in 1853. This was the Forbush and Brown plant at 103 Main Street. John Blocher and Nelson W. Blocher operated plants at 64 Exchange Street, starting in 1863, and employed several hundred workers. As late as 1923 there were twelve shoe factories in Buffalo. Today there are no shoe manufacturers in the city.

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