The tannery that operated at about 1855 Wisconsin Avenue, where the Georgetown Safeway is today, was the earliest industry in Upper Georgetown.
Leathermaking: The Popular Cyclopeadia of Useful Knowledge, 1888
The hides that were the raw material of a tannery were obtained––“3 cents for wet ones, 5 cents for dry”––from nearby slaughterhouses. The first step was to soak the hides in a vat of water and lime to loosen hair and flesh. They were then laid over a beam and scraped in the beam house, and then soaked in acid to remove the lime. In the final step in the transformation of skin into leather, layers of hides were pickled in a leaf and/or bark mash. When the tanning liquor had done its work the tanner turned the raw leather over to the currier for dressing and finishing, which took place in the currying house.
A tannery often had a bark house, to hold the cords of bark used to make the tanning liquor, and a bark mill, turned on an axle by a horse (or later, by steam). Tanbark, a valuable commodity, was purchased from lumber companies, from farmers, and from freelance “peelers”, who walked the forest in search of chestnut, oak and hemlock trees, peeled off the bark, and let the trees die. Oak and sumac leaves were also in demand.
As leather was the indispensible material for making shoes, boots, saddles, harnesses, books, luggage, furniture, and countless other useful things––so tanneries were, by and large, a welcome addition to the industries of a town. All that was asked of this malodorous trade was that it should be situated on the outskirts of town, and among the poor, who supplied its labor.
It was nasty work. A tannery drew water from a nearby stream, and channeled and pumped it into dozens of sunken vats. There were sweat vats, where rotting was used to loosen hair; lime vats, in which calcium carbonate loosened the hair; there was bate––made of poultry dung, salt, potash, and water––to remove lime; leach, an ooze of bark chips and water; and handler, a small vat filled with ooze in which the hides were stirred. Finally, there were the tan vats themselves, the biggest, in which layers of hides were tanned over time (and in which workers sometimes drowned). There were also vats for dyeing, and vats where otherwise useless scraps of hide would be allowed to decompose: the resultant mixture could be boiled down to make glue, essential to woodworking. The runoff and sludge sent downstream from all these operations contained blue vitriol, Glauber’s Salt, and sulphuric acid. The location of tanneries in Georgetown may therefore be taken as an index of formerly unfashionable neighborhoods: K Street, east of 34th Street, on the waterfront; 35th Street and Volta Place, opposite the Convent of the Visitation; and the southwest corner of 35th and O Streets.
(Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 20:126; Edgar R. Hon, “Lost Tanyards: Rediscovered in Fairfax County”, Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County, Virginia, Vol. 25, 1995-6; Richard P. Jackson, Chronicles of Georgetown, 1751-1878, pp.106-7; Intelligencer, March 2, 1811; February 15, 1823; Lawrence J. Kelly, S.J., History of Holy Trinity Parish, Washington DC, 1795-1945, 1945, p.38)
For a boy growing up in antebellum Georgetown, a tannery was naturally a great attraction. “There were also several tanneries and a mill for grinding bark nearby. The vats, skins and everything connected with the tanneries, especially the gruesome stories of men who had been drowned in the vats, interested; but not so much as the bark mill with the patient horses traveling around the ring and supplying the motor power. The mill was presided over by a rosy-faced, loud-voiced, kind-hearted giant, a pleasant host to the visiting boys. On work days they liked him, but on parade day, when as a pioneer of one of the volunteer military companies he appeared in brilliant uniform with a huge bear-skin hat on head, white sheepskin apron around waist, and a glittering broad-axe on shoulder, he was simply magnificent, and considered by them a kind of demi-god.”
(William A. Gordon, “Recollections of a Boyhood in Georgetown”, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol.20, 1917, p.126)
The most long-lived of the Georgetown tanneries––in operation for the better part of a century––was in the area of lot 250 of Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown, where a stream––visible on Boschke’s 1859 map––crossed High Street (about where the Georgetown Safeway is today). When this tannery was established is unclear; although a writer in 1884 dated it to circa 1824, there is ample evidence that it was actually already in operation by 1797: “Tanyard just above Georgetown on the road leading to Montgomery Court House. Large assortment of leather on hand. Thomas Hyde.” (Historical and Commercial Sketches of Washington and Environs, 1884; Christian Hines, Early Recollections of Washington City, p. 9; Centinel of Liberty and George-town Advertiser, October 6, 1797. Hyde’s first tannery appears to have been in Annapolis: Maryland Gazette, July 1, 1756.)
Hyde was succeeded in the Georgetown business by his son, Thomas William Hyde (1767-1841) who, in his later years, lived at 1319 30th Street, where a pithy description of the family trade was found in 1942: “Hyde is my name, and hides I buy, 3 cents for wet ones, 5 cents for dry.” His son, Elias Asbury Eliason, was the next proprietor the tannery, possibly as early as 1835, and certainly by 1850. He went out of business in 1870.
“The tannery formerly owned by E.A. Eliason is being repaired by Homiller and Duvall, who intend to continue the business.” William Homiller, Joseph Duvall, and William R. Turner had a hide and leather store at 43 High Street, from which Turner withdrew in 1876, taking over the tannery at at 302 High Street. Eliason stayed on a while at 302 High Street, his residence adjoining the tannery and bark house, and died in 1872.
(Maryland Gazette, July 1, 1756; Georgetown Houses of the Federal Period, Davis, Dorsey, and Hall, 1944, p.106; DC Libers WB53, f.376, NCT53 f.118; Georgetown Courier, February 12, April 23, 1870; May 6, 1871, August 3, 1872; April 15, 1876)
“COLUMBIA TANNERY, W. R. Turner, Prop., 2078 32d st. N.W.––The tannery now conducted by Mr. Turner has been carried on at this locality for the last sixty years, having originally been conducted by Mr. Hyde, afterward, and for many years, continued by Mr. Eleason. The present proprietor, Mr. Turner, commenced the business in 1871. The premises cover two and one-half acres of ground and are in every way adapted to the business. A specialty is made of the dressing of all kinds of skins of animals, for which their house has an established reputation. In 1882, in conjunction with tanning, and for the purpose of utilizing this surplus steam power, he established the stove and kindling wood business, a new enterprise with which he has had great success. This work is done by machinery, the wood put into bundles in convenient size, and meets with ready sale throughout the District. He has a large and constantly increasing business in the District and also in Baltimore, Maryland. A large stock is carried, and employment is given to from 13 to 15 hands. Mr. Turner was born in Berkley County, West Virginia, and there educated, and came to the District in 1871.” (Historical and Commercial Sketches of Washington and Environs, 1884)
Promotional prose notwithstanding, the tannery appears to have closed by 1887, when the property is marked M. Adler. The slaughterhouses that had supplied the hides were on their way out, and subdivisions on their way in. Streetcars began coming up Wisconsin Avenue in 1889, and none of the ingredients of the tanning trade mixed well with the development of streetcar suburbs.
The decline in the industry can also be gauged by the number of tanners living in the vicinity. In the 1850 census there were seven: John F. Tracy, John Elkins, Frederick Lukei, William Whaling, S. Ridgely, and William Eli (in the Poor House). In 1860 there were three––John F. Tracy, John Elkins, and Samuel Berry––and in 1880, just two––Walter Payne and Ira Nicholson. Most of these men lived on Fayette Street (35th), in Bryantown, a poor neighborhood that was about to be displaced. (See Bryantown.)
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