Ulster County was known for glassmaking, tanning and hoop-making

Workers in 1917 scrape hides by hand to remove fleshings and fine hair, one of many backbreaking steps in tanning. (New York State Archives)

Glassmaking began in Ulster County in 1809 when the Woodstock Glass Manufacturing Society (later Company) was formed, known to all as Glasco. Previously, most glass used in the United States came from England, but in 1807 Congress passed the Embargo Act, which cut off trade with Europe. Many merchants faced bankruptcy, but factories making textiles, metal objects, glass, and similar products prospered.

Other glass factories popped up in Shady and Stoney Clove in a secluded part of the upper Sawkill Valley just past Woodstock. The area’s thousands of acres of trees would supply fuel for glass furnaces for half a century. Another necessary ingredient was sand, readily available nearby. The local supply was depleted, and sand had to be imported from New Jersey and Philadelphia, along with other chemicals. Glasco Turnpike was created to transport materials to and from the Hudson River, and the hamlet along the river became known as Glasco.

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One of the main goods produced was window glass, sold as individual panes or by the box. Straw and hay were used to cushion the glass for transport. Smaller quantities of bottles and tableware were made there as well.

Glassworkers were known as lively and imaginative craftsmen who loved music. Because their lungs were well-developed from blowing glass, they were often singers. Glassblower choirs were a common feature of European glassmaking villages tucked away in the forests, and the tradition continued in Ulster County. Glassmakers were also known as colorful, free-spirited folks who put on a good show as they worked beside their glowing furnaces. Woodstockers went to watch them blow glass day and night, and the workers made whimsical objects such as small glass animals that were given as souvenirs and used as doorstops. In the winter, neighbors gathered in their workshops to keep warm.

The Catskill forests were depleted by those who usurped the available materials. Glassmakers cut down hardwoods such as birch, maple, and beech from the northern and western slopes, and tanners destroyed the eastern slopes for the oak and hemlock necessary for their trade.

Tanning began in the Catskills due to three intersecting factors. The Hudson River and other waterways facilitated transportation. Bark from the thick forests of hemlock supplied a necessary resource. The availability of abundant water was necessary for nearly every step in the process.

Barrels were integral to many industries to store and transport products, including beer, molasses, and grain. Here, hoop shavers making barrels for the cement industry pose for a photograph in the late 1800s. (John Matthews Collection)

Tannin, a strong curing solution, was created by mixing crushed hemlock bark with water. Raw animal hides imported from South America and around the world would soak for up to six months to produce treated leather. The hides were then rinsed with water from local lakes and rivers, which also powered the mills that were essential for grinding hemlock bark into a powder to make tannin. Oak-tanned leather was popular for shoe uppers, while leather made from hemlock — with its less appealing orange hue — was predominantly used for soles.

Jonathan Palen launched the local tanning industry in 1817, followed in 1822 by William Edwards, who expanded into large-scale production and new technologies. The most well-known tanner was Zadock Pratt. He opened a tannery in the Catskills in 1825 that became the world’s largest at the time, and he founded the town of Prattsville to accommodate his workers. By 1845, there was no more hemlock within a ten-mile radius. 

Pratt was grateful for the local resources and workforce and donated generously to the community, leaving behind a bank, churches, schools, houses, an opera house, a newspaper, well-paved streets, and diversified local industry so that the town would survive when his company moved on.

Hemlock peelers were crucial to the tanning industry. Due to the high demand for bark, there was plentiful work, both temporary and permanent. Every spring, groups of peelers would camp within a few miles of a tannery, cutting down the easily accessible lower bark and leaving the rest of the tree to die. Trees were about four feet in diameter, with some even larger. Every aspect of tanning was backbreaking work, from the bark peelers to the men who worked with the hides, scraping them repeatedly while leaning forward.

Forest fires caused by peelers who would discard refuse from the trees were common. Tanning factories also produced large quantities of pollutants and emptied their toxic tanning liquid directly into local streams, which harmed fish and other wildlife. Each factory required a half-million trees per year, leaving many square miles deforested, a blight on the scenery.

Tanning lasted only as long as there was a supply of trees. Without easy access to hemlock bark, the Catskill Mountains were no longer a profitable place to tan hides. By the mid-19th century, after only about 30 years of operation, abandoned factories, villages, and “peeling settlements” peppered the area. Today, tanning is done with vegetable acids and artificial chemicals.

Hoop-making was born from the new growth that emerged from the devastated forests. The barrel industry required wooden hoops, and young saplings were ideal for the task. Hoop shavers found plentiful work. Between 8000 and 9000 people were employed annually at the peak of the industry in the 1880s. Around the turn of the century, steam-powered mills put handmade hoops out of business practically overnight, as hoops could now be made out of metal.

To see sample pages and information about supporting the 475-page book, The Story of Historic Kingston, featuring 950 images, that will be released in December 2021, please visit: HudsonValleyHistoryAndArt.com.

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There is one comment

  1. Mark McCarroll

    ‘ The Catskill Forest ‘ , is a great book by professor Michael Kudish and it includes a map of forest industries which shows the locations of hundreds of sawmills , tanneries , furniture factories , quarries , and other mountain industries in the Catskill area . Imagine how the Catskills looked covered in a carpet of hemlock forest before becoming denuded .The hemlock never made a comeback ! Yet today there is logging all over the ” forever wild ‘ Catskill forest !

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