Bare mountainsides littered with downed hemlock trees, stripped of their bark, which was used to tan animal hides because of the tannins in the bark. Soil erosion from the denuded slopes, streams polluted by waste from the tanning process. These effects of the tanning industry, an early economic engine of the Catskills, were indisputably destructive to the environment. But what about later results such as biological diversity? And the establishment of the Catskill Forest Preserve?
In his talk entitled “The Catskill Tanneries: An Environmental Disaster with a Happy Ending,” local historian Paul Misko describes the development of the tannery industry — particularly in Phoenicia’s Woodland Valley but also in other parts of the Catskills — as well as the consequences of the tanneries’ brief reign, which he says weren’t all bad. If you missed his recent presentation in Highland, packed with fascinating facts about the history of our mountains and valleys, you’ll have a chance to hear it on Saturday, May 5, at 2 p.m. at the Saugerties Public Library, accompanied by a slide show of vintage photographs and maps.
An avid hiker since childhood, Misko has researched the remnants of human presence he often stumbles across in the woods. He explains how Phoenicia received its name, based, as many town residents know, on the Phoenix Tannery, once a mainstay of the local economy. Not all of us have heard that the tannery’s name came from the rapid rebuilding of the structure when it burned down in 1839, soon after it was first constructed. The town was called Phoenix until the postal service was getting established. Because there was already another Phoenix, New York, local residents picked the new name, hearkening back to the ancient Mediterranean culture.
Tanneries were built fast, partly because there were no construction regulations, but also because they weren’t built to last. The owners knew they would eventually run out of hemlocks within a distance that was profitable for transport. The huge Prattsville tannery was constructed in 82 days. Misko has found several passages in written letters referring to tanneries, built only the year before, that washed away.
Bark peelers did their work from May to early July, when the bark was loose on the trees and easy to detach. Four-foot lengths of bundled bark were transported on sleds pulled by oxen in winter, when the surface of the snow raised the sled runners above the obstructing stumps and rocks. Misko displays two ox shoes he found while hiking. The curved iron shoes were nailed in pairs on each of the beasts’ cloven hooves. He also has a bark spud, a wood-handled lever with an iron appendage, used to pry bark from hemlock trunks.
The Phoenix Tannery was located at the head of Woodland Valley, along the Esopus Creek, and the Woodland Tannery was built later, a few miles into the valley, above the Pantherkill Creek. Although no trace of the structures remains, there are remnants of the community that sprang up around the Woodland Tannery to support the workers. At one time, there were houses, a school, and a church. Misko has identified the former store and post office, and in the woods he has found bark peelers’ shanties, where men stayed while working the hemlocks.
Tanning in the Catskills lasted from the early 1800s to the 1860s, when the Civil War ramped up the need for leather goods. When the war ended, says Misko, returning soldiers brought home their leather, and the demand dropped precipitously. By then, there were few hemlocks left within reach of the tanneries. The owners, who grew wealthy if their timing was right, were sometimes far-seeing and enlightened enough to provide their workers with other sources of employment — sawmills and dairies, in the case of Prattsville — to support the town when the tannery business collapsed. The village named for its founder, John Hunter, was renamed Edwards when Colonel Edwards built a tannery there. But Edwards did not plan ahead for his employees, and later the devastated town went back to the name Hunter, expressing the townspeople’s resentment.
Other industries eventually followed, such as barrel hoop carving, which made use of the hardwood saplings that sprang up on the slopes after the hemlocks were downed. Due to a combination of tannery sludge discharged into streams and silt eroded into the water from the naked mountainsides, fishing in the mountain creeks declined. The response, as mentioned in a previous article on sporting clubs, was the establishment of groups of hunters and fishermen who worked to clean up the creeks, early examples of environmental activism. With the eroded slopes useless for farming, swaths of land were taken over by the state government, forming the nucleus of the Catskill Forest Preserve, which maintains the pristine beauty of the mixed hardwood forest that eventually sprang up in the wake of the hemlocks. As Misko points out, a diversity of species is ecologically preferable to the monoculture of hemlocks that preceded it. Imagine if the wooly adelgid, the parasite that has attacked our hemlocks in recent decades, had swept across the mountains before the days of the tanneries.
I’ve given away the happy ending of Misko’s talk, but I have omitted a plethora of little-known details of his research and the humor of his delivery. If you value local history, it’s worth your while to go to Saugerties and hear him spin his true tales. Misko also shares his discoveries through WIOX radio’s “From the Forest” and Catskill trivia quiz shows; articles for Kaatskill Life and the Catskill Mountain Region Guide; talks on Catskill history, American history, and John Burroughs; and the Catskill 4000 Club, a small hiking group that focuses on history-themed hikes and events.