Monday, February 15, 2010

THE CENTER LISLE TANNERY, By Eleanor Ticknor, Town and Village of Lisle Historian

When you drive by the hamlet of Center Lisle on Route 79, it's hard to imagine that the village was once the site of the largest tanning industry in the world in the last half of the nineteen century. The tannery employed one hundred and twenty-five men at its peak and vastly contributed to the prosperity of the entire town.

Lisle was heavily forested when the New England settlers came here in the 1790's. Lumbering became the first industry and, with the coming of the railroad in the 1850's, leather making took over as the chief industry.

The making of leather was a lengthy process. Repeated washings and soakings of the raw hides were necessary to remove the dirt and debris, the blood and the chemicals used to loosen the hair and any remaining flesh.

When the hides were scraped clean, they were ready for soaking in tannin, a naturally occurring acid found in hemlock or oak bark. The bark was chipped and soaked in water. Tannic acid would leach out to be used in the curing process.

Drying and finishing completed the work. Men, using "slickers," a 5/8-inch piece of glass set into a wooden board, pressed the tanning liquor out of the hides. Then the hides were pounded with a mallet and hung to dry.

The first tannery in old "Yorkshire", as Center Lisle was then called, was owned and operated by Deacon Levi Jones. His tannery was located on the banks of Dudley Creek across the highway from where the Center Lisle church is today. His boot and shoe shop was next to his home in the village. Deacon Jones died in 1856, leaving an opportunity for a new tanning entrepreneur.

Lewis S. Smith, a native of North Pitcher, New York, had learned the shoemaker and tanner trades in New York and Connecticut. He had operated businesses in several states at different times, but the limited availability of bark had him looking elsewhere.

Center Lisle offered the perfect opportunity for Smith. The land was heavily forested and the availability of hemlock bark for tanning was seemingly endless. Water was plentiful. And, shipping by rail was available only a few miles away in the village of Lisle.

Smith bought the property in Center Lisle from the estate of Levi Jones, and Center Lisle resident, Robert Forbes, built the tannery in 1858. Employees of Irish descent were brought in, probably from Smith's business connections in Connecticut and New York City.

Center Lisle was very small in 1858, only a few scattered houses, a store, the old shoe shop and tannery of Levi Jones. When Smith started his tannery, he also built a boarding house and tenement houses for his workers and a store to supply their needs. Later, he added a steam sawmill. The building and operation of the Smith tannery greatly increased the prosperity of the town.

Smith conducted business with the J. S. Rockwell Company, a leather manufacturer and dealer in Brooklyn. Rockwell imported the skins from Australia and other countries of the world and shipped them to Lisle by train. The great hogsheads, or casks, full of sheepskins were picked up by horse and wagon and delivered to Center Lisle. Smith tanned the hides on a contract basis and shipped them back to Brooklyn.

In 1864, J. S. Rockwell wanted the tannery enlarged again, but Smith, with a large family of eight children, didn’t have the capital. He sold his interest to the Rockwell Co. who enlarged the tannery by 100 feet, bringing the total length of the three-story building to 365 feet. Smith continued to be the superintendent at Center Lisle.

An article in the Lisle Gleaner of April 26, 1872 tells of the sizeable business done at the Center Lisle tannery: "L. S. Smith has received within the past few days 275 casks of sheepskins or a total of 231,999 skins."

At one time, the tannery employed 125 men, but by 1913, the full capacity of the tannery was no longer used. Only seventy-five to one hundred dozen skins were being tanned per day. Census records of that period show few employees.

What caused the demise of the Center Lisle tannery? One reason was the scarcity of hemlock bark. In 1859, bark was plentiful. But as the hemlock trees were logged off, the supply dwindled and in 1913, bark was being obtained in Chenango Forks, Marathon and Willet. Chemicals were also being used. Other reasons for the tannery's demise are not recorded in history, but may be due to financial reasons and technological innovations in the industry.

The exact date of the Center Lisle tannery's closing has not been determined. Nor is it known the exact date the building was torn down, but one person with a good memory said it was in 1923.

David Cassidy, in his Cultural Resource Management Survey, 1987 Highway Program states that the tannery was the primary reason for the rise in prosperity and development in the entire Town of Lisle in the last half of the 19th century and the tannery's demise was mirrored by the overall decline of the town.

Picture One: Center Lisle with the tannery, 1909


Pat said...


Thank you for allowing us to use and learn about this important part of our history!

I am not sure any Bakers worked in the tannery, but it does seem that it was the 'going concern' in the town, so everyone in the late 1800's would be affected by it, one way or another.

And, who knew driving through Center Lisle today that it once held the largest of ANY industry?

Lovely to get a taste of what life was like then. As I watch my youngsters learn to drive and control a car, I think, one hundred years ago, one hundred and fifty years ago--not such an important skill--in fact, reining in and controlling a horse was the skill to learn for a youngster. Skills and businesses change over the centuries....

So yes, thank you for helping us to be able to picture what the small town of Center Lisle might have felt and looked like in the late 1800's.

CB said...

According to 1884-1885 diaries written by Nell Baker Barrows, her father Lenard and brother were busy often collecting and delivering wagon loads of bark to this tannery! And a small diary of Byron/s [ her brother] mentions the same. Somewhere I seem to remember that Elmer Howland also used to work there during 1910-20 years. Will ask Leona but do any of Gladys kids know? Aunt CB
Thsi is an excellent story , Thanks to Eleanor!