Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

Industrial Development: Tanneries
by Susan Lehmann

Tanneries : The Santa Cruz County tanning industry had its start [in] 1843 when Paul Sweet built a tannery on the San Augustine Rancho in Scotts Valley. Sweet, who arrived in Monterey in 1840, was a sailor who worked for a time at Isaac Graham's sawmill. He began his enterprise to take advantage of the plentiful hides and the existence of copious quantities of high quality tan bark, a necessary ingredient in the tanning process. His operation, although small and unsophisticated, was nonetheless successful because of the need for leather goods such as saddles and leggings.

This early enterprise was one of the first commercial ventures of its type in California. The Spanish, when establishing their mission and pueblo system in the late 1700s had some rudimentary facilities for leather tanning. Because of a lack of skilled labor, however, tanning large quantities of hides was not successful and manufacturing was generally limited to crude shoes, rough saddles and saddle pads. It was more feasible to ship raw or minimally processed hides than to make leather. After 1834, when the Mexican government secularized the California missions, the hide and tallow industry continued on the large ranchos carved and divided from mission lands. One shipment recorded in 1836 from California to the East Coast lists a cargo of 39,000 hides.

Although Sweet ceased operations in 1846, the next fifteen years saw the establishment of other similar businesses in Santa Cruz. In 1857, an article in the Pacific Sentinel, lists the Kirby and Jones tannery, located then on Mission Hill, the Porter Brothers in Soquel, C. Brown and Company on Laurel and the Grove Tannery operated by William Warren and James Duncan on the present site of the Salz Tannery on River Street. These four, according to the article, were able to tan and dress ten thousand hides a year. In addition, the Santa Cruz County manufacturers had established outlets in San Francisco for leather goods that included skirting, harness, belting, bridle and sole leather.

The Warren and Duncan operation, begun in 1856, was small in comparison to the others, turning out only 500 hides a year while Kirby and Jones produced about 3,500. A flood washed away the building of the Grove Tannery in 1861 but it was rebuilt and later purchased by Jacob F. Kron.

Kron who was born in Prussia in 1823, traveled with his wife Anna Katherine first to Napa where he raised cattle and finally to Santa Cruz where he bought an interest in the Grove Tannery in 1866. He became sole owner the following year, paying a total of $5,500. When extensive fires in northern California in 1870 wiped out much of the tan bark used by San Francisco manufacturers, it provided a boon to Santa Cruz tanners and Jacob Kron took advantage of the opportunity to expand and improve his facilities. Using the services of carpenters Giles Ellingwood and Wilbur Huntingon, a dry-house was constructed: "50x75 feet, with fifty windows, the basement to be occupied by vats." An interesting feature was the inclusion of a plank walk with tanks at either end located at the apex of the roof. The purpose of the tanks was to hold water to be used in case of fire. Even at this early date, fire protection of the wood frame buildings was of great importance.

In addition to the dry house, a kiln sufficiently large to hold twenty cords of bark and heated by a double furnace was constructed at the cost of $1000. This was in addition to other improvements such as an engine, fixtures and construction which would bring the total expended to $4000, a considerable sum of money for the time.

The four tanneries were part of the industrial expansion of the County during the 1860s and 70s and became known for both the quality and quantity of the leather produced. (Kirby alone was processing 1,500 hides a month.) To maintain the industry, however, took prodigious amounts of tan bark. Not just the bark but the entire tree was harvested and used for barrel staves as well as firewood to produce steam to run the plants. Although the supply seemed endless, by the turn of the century, the oak trees, like the redwoods used for lumber and to fuel the limekilns, were seriously depleted bringing about the eventual demise of the industries they had created.

Before that time, however, the entrepreneurs of Santa Cruz County took full advantage of the natural resources within easy reach. While the Kirby operation was the largest and most well known in the County during the 1870s and 1880s, by 1890 A. C. Kron and Company was manufacturing products worth $160,000 a year and soon became the leading institution of its type in the County.

The development of the San Lorenzo Tannery into a major Santa Cruz industry did not end with the death of Jacob Kron in 1879. The business passed to his wife Anna and their three sons, Henry, Oscar, and Franklin. The company was incorporated in 1890 with Oscar as president, Henry as Vice-President and Franklin as manager of the company's operation in Sydney, Australia. This office both provided a distribution outlet for products and provided hides that were purchased in Sydney and shipped to Santa Cruz.

The company employed over thirty workers in 1890, with a payroll of $16,000 to $18,000. They paid $25,000 for hides, and not surprisingly the same amount for tan bark, so important was this commodity for the production of first quality leather goods. In addition to the Santa Cruz facility, the Kron Trading Company had a wholesale leather and commission house on Clay Street in San Francisco under the management of Oscar Kron. The Sydney branch processed leather from 50,000 kangaroo hides a year.

By 1896, the San Lorenzo Tannery, as the Kron operation in Santa Cruz was now called, had succeeded Kirby's operation as the premier leather producing company in the County. Being a family business, both Anna Kron and Henry as site manager, lived on the tannery grounds. In addition, cottages were provided for married employees as well as a boardinghouse for the unmarried men.

At that time, the tanning operation consisted of a 40' x 120' beam house; a 16' x 120' leach house with ten six cord square leaches and two eight cord round leaches; and 140 double and single tanning vats that were housed in an open sided building with drying loft above. Steam for the operation was provided by a furnace with a 110 foot brick stack. Fuel consisted of wet tan bark delivered to the furnace by an elevator. The plant generated its own electric power with an Edison electric dynamo capable of providing 150 incandescent lights to the tannery and the family residences.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance map for 1892 describes the Kron facility as "mostly new -- premises very tidy with a night watchman and an electric (fire) alarm connected to the men's sleeping quarters." Fire protection, a necessity given the woodframe buildings and the distance from a municipal firehouse, was provided by the Pogonip Hose Company. The company, which had a hose house located across from the plant on River Street, was composed entirely of tannery employees. It provided fire protection to the northern part of the city and remained active until 1904.

Photographs from the period do indeed show a "tidy premises" -- typical of the various kids of manufacturing operations that could be found along the rivers and streams of Santa Cruz County. Located in a bucolic setting, surrounded by trees and within a convenient distance to the nearby town, the tannery had its own orchards, and gardens, raised hay for livestock and provided living quarters for its workers.

Fifty men were employed in the tannery along with additional crews and teams that hauled 2,500 cords of tan bark a year from forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. Hides came from California, Australia and Hawaii to the plant which processed 250 sides a day. The sole leather produced was shipped to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Boston as well as overseas to Japan and Australia.

By the turn of the century, however, the financial realities of the period, along with a string of personal tragedies, profoundly affected the Kron operation. Oscar Kron, who ran the commission house in San Francisco died in 1899. He was followed by his brother, Franklin, manager of the Sidney operation in 1913. Their mother and widow of the founder, Anna Katherine, also died that year.

Business was affected not only by the high cost of raw materials but a lowering of demand for sole leather which was the tannery's principal product. By 1915, the company was in receivership with all real and personal property assigned to satisfy creditors. As a result, the plant closed for three years "going out with the powder works and causing a serious lapse in the pay roll resources of Santa Cruz County." In April 1918, purchase of the property by Kullman, Salz and Company who owned tanneries in San Francisco and Benecia was announced. The company, most well known for its harness leather, brought hope that diversification of its product line would once again make the tannery successful. An editorial in the Santa Cruz Surf welcomed these developments: "From every point of view Santa Cruz will be glad to see work revived at the tannery and will welcome the enterprise of the new investors."

The partnership of Herman Kullman and Jacob Salz had begun in 1874 with their joint involvement in a tannery in Stockton. In 1881, Kullman, Salz and Company acquired the Benecia Tannery and in 1896, the firm incorporated with headquarters in San Francisco. With the death of Jacob Salz in 1900, his son, Ansley Kullman Salz became involved in the business and continued his associated until the firm was liquidated in 1928 and the Benecia Tannery shut down.

The San Lorenzo Tannery in Santa Cruz had continued its operation, however, despite persistent rumors that it was about to close. In 1920, a shortage of hides and other unnamed factors, prompted the facility to curtail production and lay off a number of workers. By 1924, the plant was in full operation again and producing sole and harness leather. In spite of the perception that there was no market for harness leather, there were actually more horses in California than there had been in 1914 and demand remained high. Raw materials continued to be a problem since the seeming inexhaustible supply of tan bark on the Central Coast had been virtually depleted, and tanners all over the state were utilizing the remaining stands from Humboldt and Mendecino [sic] County. Hides came primarily from the Pacific Coast and South America and the finished product marketed to the West and Middle West as well as Japan.

The Great Depression took less of a toll on the Santa Cruz economy than other places, largely because the primary base had shifted from manufacturing to agricultural. The few remaining industrial enterprises, like Kullman Salz, however, were subject to the same market forces as the rest of the county. The company was dissolved in 1929, and the San Lorenzo Tannery closed in April of that year. Ansley Kullman Salz, however, was persuaded to invest his own funds into continuing the enterprise and on October 1, 1929, A. K. Salz and Company was incorporated.

On October 3, the local newspaper reported that the facility would reopen, employing at least [twenty-five] men under the name of Santa Cruz Tannery. By March of 1930, the company announced that it was able to market everything it could produce. During the 1930s the leather was used in horse tack, saddles and dog harnesses, as well as case leather for luggage.

In spite of the extensive precautions taken to prevent such disasters, a huge fire broke out in the tannery on September 29, 1934. Believed to be the result of arson, the fire destroyed over half the plant including the hair house, the currier shop, the drying loft, the tacking loft and a warehouse as well as various sheds and the engine and boiler rooms. The long vat building located to the north of those destroyed also caught fire but was saved. In addition to the loss of the buildings, $95,000 worth of finished leather, and equal amount in unfinished materials was also lost. The total amount of damages was put at $250,000 most of which was covered by insurance. Ironically, a new $10,000 sprinkling system had just been installed and was to have been put into operation the following week. Seventy employees were temporarily thrown out of work by the fire but the plant was rebuilt and quickly resumed operations.

During World War II, leather was used for a variety of purposes for the war effort including fan belts for Army tank engines and as pads for the recoil mechanism of big guns. Salz produced mechanical seal leather, during the war, using chrome on the leather after it was vegetable tanned to give the leather higher resistance to hot temperatures around bearings.

Following World War II, Salz developed a smooth leather, unlike the grained leathers available during the war, that was glazed by hand. At the time, there was enormous pent up demand in the country for a range of products that were either rationed or simply unavailable. The scarcity of tan bark and the pressures of competition caused the tannery to change its method from vegetable tanning to the use of chrome as the principal tanning agent.

The company now purchases ... a product called "wet blue" which is between raw hide and leather. So called because of the blue color imparted by the chrome used to tan it, the tannery splits, shaves, retans and colors the product. This results in the finished leather used for a wide variety of consumer products, including footwear, belts, garments and accessories.

[From: Fully Developed Context Statement for the City of Santa Cruz. Prepared for City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department. Prepared by Susan Lehmann, October 20, 2000. Chapter 3, Context I: Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz 1850-1950, pp. 10-14]

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