Third generation tannery man

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

January 4, 1964

A year after graduating high school, Bartow resident John Simmons became part of the third generation to work at the Howe’s Leather Company Tannery in Frank.

Simmons started his career in the warehouse, loading leather for shipments. Three years in, he became shipping clerk and handled the handwritten ledger book of all the leather coming in and out of the facility.

He continued his rise through the ranks – learning how to operate and repair the machinery used to take raw steer hides and turn them into leather for shoes, accessories and furniture.

“In about 1969, I was trained to run a belt knife splitting machine,” Simmons said. “It takes awhile to learn how to do that. It’s a machine belt that’s continuous, and it splits leather to any thickness that’s required. I stayed on that job for about ten years. We had four of those machines by then, and I was a mechanic on those machines the latter part of the ten years.”

In 1979, Simmons rose to the rank of foreman in the finish department. From there, he continued to rise – to relief foreman, then quality control.

“I was moved up to relief foreman, and had to learn the whole plant because whenever one of the foremen was off on vacation, I had to fill in,” he said. “I had to learn the whole plant, which is good.”

By 1983, the company chose Simmons to go to University of Cincinnati to study industrial engineering and business management. With his newly acquired education, Simmons returned to the facility as the industrial engineer and safety officer.

With the double title, came lots of responsibilities and travel, but Simmons enjoyed learning the ropes and experiencing every step of the process of making quality leather.

“One of the jobs that I did was to go out and actually time a job with a stop watch,” he said. “I had to do that four or five times to get a good feel for the job, and each movement that the employee made, I had to clock it.”

The employees were paid based on how many pieces they produced in a day and that is why Simmons had to time each step in the long process from beginning to end.

“That’s how we came up with a standard amount of pieces per hour,” he said. “Every piece above that hourly rate, they were paid one percent of their wage, so it was an incentive type thing. A lot of those guys worked hard on that job. We set up a natural rate on jobs, but several of them would double their time and they would make two hours in one by handling extra pieces. It helped the company to hold the amount of employees and it helped the employees by doubling their time.”

Howe’s was mainly known for its production of shoe sole leather, but there were several types of leather being processed at the Frank Tannery. 

“They’d start out with that steer hide and end up with the finest sole leather and other leathers, too,” Simmons said. “They made several different products. The sole leather was the main product, but they made other types of leather, too. Made a good bit of upholstery leather, glove leather.”

The quality of leather depended on the part of the hide used.

“The thickness had to do with it,” Simmons explained. “The bellies were cut off and made into strap leather and they made gun holsters out of them. The shoulder part of the hide, that was made into upholstery leather – or depending on the grade of it – one of the bigger things was the leather mail carrier’s bags. Howe’s pretty well had the market cornered on that.”

Howe’s also held a rather lucrative contract with the United States Government to make all the military boots and dress shoes insoles with a re-tanned Howe’s leather shoe sole.

“When the Vietnam War got cranked up, they realized that the soldiers being in that swamp and mud – their feet were wet all the time,” Simmons said. “Their boots were molding, mildewing. [Howe’s] discovered that if they re-tanned with chromic oxide, it would prevent that shoe from molding and mildewing.

“What they did is they took those double shoulders and tanned them the normal way and then they treated them, and actually tanned them with chromic oxide – or chrome – as it was ordinarily called, and that insole part of it wouldn’t mold or mildew.”

The re-tanned leather was shipped to three companies that had the contracts to make boots and dress shoes for the U.S. military.

“Carolina Shoe was one of the bigger ones in South Carolina, and I guess they’re still there,” Simmons said. “They make work shoes and that type of thing. We shipped a lot of that chromic oxide re-tanned leather to them, and they made the military shoes, and put that insole in every pair of them. A lot of people don’t know that. The only place they were made in the country was right there at Howe’s Leather Company.

“Howe’s was the type of company that was always looking for something new, and they discovered several things down through the years that could be done with leather,” he added.

Along with monitoring the work at Frank, Simmons traveled with hide buyers and observed the process of harvesting the hides for shipment.

“Howe’s dealt in steer hides only,” he said. “They would go out and buy them. The IBP, which is the Independent Beef Producers co-op, was the largest supplier. It was in Grand Island, Nebraska. We would go there and buy all those hides.”

The operation slaughtered approximately 3,000 head of steers a day and had more than 2,000 employees. Simmons was able to witness the process from beginning to end and was amazed at how swiftly the workers handled their duties – much like the men he worked with in Frank.

Before the hides were packed onto pallets and sent to Frank, they were treated with a salt water brine and folded around rock salt to stave off mold and insects.

Each truckload held approximately 950 hides.

When the pallets were unloaded at Frank, Simmons said one pallet was picked at random for quality control and that information was shared with the IBP for future orders.

The production of leather was a continuous flow of work – from the moment those pallets were unloaded to the moment the leather was cut and folded for shipment.

“The standard amount of hides per day was eleven hundred, forty,” Simmons said. “That’s whole hides. So you can see at 950 in a trailer load, it took almost two trailer loads a day to supply that.”

Once the hides were unloaded, they were put into a warm water bath to remove the salt and any manure or dirt remaining on the hides.

This bath also helped rehydrate the hides, which shrunk from continuous contact with salt. The hides were strung together with rope and taken through large 100 degree water baths in which they soaked overnight.

The next day, the hides were moved to a lime bath which removed the hair. Once the hair was fully removed, the hides went to the fleshing machine which used a cylindered knife blade with an electric motor to remove excess fat.

At that point, the bellies were removed and were cut to make strap leather and gun holsters.

The rest of the hides went through a de-liming process in large vats equipped with paddles that circulated the hides to properly rinse them of all the chemicals.

The hides were then ready for the tanning process. The process of tanning comes from the materials used to create what is known as an extract, which the hides are treated with for up to 14 days.

“That’s where the name tannery comes from because of the tannic acid or tannins – all wood has tannic acid in it,” Simmons said. “Originally, the reason they built tanneries out in the boonies like we are – two things they needed was good water – fresh water – which the East Fork of the Greenbrier had; and an abundance of bark. They tanned leather with bark.”

Howe’s had a plant where the bark was ground into a dust and cooked in a vat with water.

“It’s just like making tea,” Simmons said.

Although Howe’s did utilize local pine and oak bark from Pocahontas County, it also had a special blend from three very specific trees which enhanced the wearability and quality of the leather.

“Part of it was from France – the chestnut extract from France,” Simmons said. “The quebracho is a tree in South America, and it is high in tannin, and then they had another tree called Wattle and, of course, it came in as extract. It was already cooked and everything. It was in a dry form.

“Howe’s would take those three ingredients and mix them together, and that was the basis for the extract to tan the leather,” he continued. “It was highly tested and tried, and the very best blend that they could get.”

The hides would soak in the extract for 13 days before going through the final process to become leather.

The hides were taken from the vats and the liquid – tanning liquor – was pumped out of the material.

After having all the liquor removed, the hides were stiffer and cut into what is known as bends, which was used to make the sole leather. The bends needed an oil lubricating treatment to make them shine, and then a stretching treatment to smooth them out. 

“The last process ran it through a machine that had brushes, and they dipped the bends overnight in a solution of polish and dried overnight,” Simmons said. “They were run through the brush machine and it put a shine on it like a mirror.”

The shoe leather was shipped to companies including Florsheim Shoe Company in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Hanover Shoe Company. Both the Hanover plants in Marlinton and Franklin worked with Howe’s Leather.

Howe’s continued to operate like a well oiled machine until the market for leather products declined and those companies that did still need leather, started partnering with leather companies in other countries.

June 12, 1994

Simmons and his fellow tannery workers filed into the facility and went to work as usual – that is, until the president of the company came in and made an announcement.

“He pulled everybody together in the warehouse and said, ‘Sorry. The board of directors says shut it down,’” Simmons recalled. “I knew it was coming. You could tell.

“That morning, I had a job that was right at fifty-thousand dollars a year,” he added. “Within an hour of having the meeting, I was on unemployment.”

“Each department had to work the production out,” Simmons added. “Not all the workers were laid off that day. They had to finish what was in process. As each department worked out – cleaned out everything – then it was ‘goodbye.’ The board of directors was in Boston, Massachusetts. Do you think they care about Pocahontas County? When that money slowed up, they packed it up.”

While it wasn’t the picture perfect ending for a 30-year career, Simmons remains an unofficial historian for the Frank Tannery and holds on to his memories – good and bad.

“I had a pretty exciting thirty years at Howe’s Leather Company,” he said.

One memory he holds onto is giving tours to people who stopped by the tannery. Simmons said there were times individuals and families would stop by and ask for a tour, which always seemed to fall to him to give.

“I enjoyed doing it,” he said.

He would take people through the facility and explain the process of turning hides into leather. 

“People were amazed I’d take them around,” Simmons said. “When we got over to the finish area, where it was dry leather, I’d take them inside and show them everything. They were amazed that you could take an animal hide and turn it into what we had.”

Simmons said one of the most commented on aspects of the facility was the smell, which was hard to miss.

“Usually there were two or three kids,” he said of his tour groups.” One kid commented, ‘Eww, what’s that smell?’

“I said, ‘Well now, tell me something. Do you like hamburgers?’

“’Yeah.’

“’Do you like steak?’

“’Yeah.’

“I said, ‘well that’s the wrappers off of them.’”

Simmons now serves as the Executive Director of the Pocahontas County Senior Citizens, Inc.

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