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UPCC considers museum for Frank Tannery office

Upper Pocahontas Community Cooperative members Jason Bauserman and Nancy Egan recently took at tour of the Frank Tannery office building with Pocahontas County commissioner Walt Helmick and Jimmy Harmon. Above, Bauserman and Harmon are in conversation outside the office building prior to the tour. Photo courtesy of Tim Walker

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

A four-member group, Upper Pocahontas Community Cooperative – consisting of Jason and Julia Bauserman, Judy Fuller and Nancy Egan – has worked diligently through the years to help the towns in northern Pocahontas County to preserve, restore and promote the area.

In the past, the group has worked with the town of Durbin to erect a new library building, install a trail from Durbin to Frank and continues to work on projects including historical informa- tion signs for the town of Durbin.

Earlier this month, UPCC organized a public meeting to discuss the future of the office that served the Frank Tannery. Former employees of the tannery and Pocahontas County Commissioner Walt Helmick joined UPCC to brainstorm ideas about how to keep the tannery’s history alive.

“The tannery has come up next, and there are still a few of you guys left, and we’d like to hear from you,” Jason Bauserman said. “I think we would like to start doing audio and video taping of you guys telling about what you did up there.

“We’ve thrown around some things, but we’re just a small group with not much money, and we just need help as to what you all are thinking,” he continued. “It was a very important part of the northern end, and it was your livelihood. We’d really like to gather some historical information.”

The members of UPCC said they agreed it would be nice to either use the current tannery office or build a new facility to house a museum with the historical artifacts and stories on display.

“Whether we keep the building or it gets torn down and we salvage some of the good parts to use in a new building, we are interested in a museum,” Fuller said. “That was the purpose of the meeting tonight, to see if there is interest from the community to help us or to take over getting a museum established in the community.”

Before the discussion could move toward establishing a museum, Helmick said it is important for all involved to take a tour of the facility and see if any of the building is salvageable.

“I think everybody here should look at the building before we make any decision,” he said. “I’m willing to come up at any time and go through the building and look at it. I understand, appreciate and support the possibility of doing a museum because the tanners of West Virginia – there were a significant number, and this was the last one and it was the largest one in the state.”

The county commission recently took a tour of the tannery facility and Helmick said there is a lot of damage, but parts of the building look to be in good shape.

“The front end of the building back to where the safe is is not in too bad of shape,” he said. “The bathrooms in all honesty are not in too bad of shape. From there back, water pours in, and it has ruined the back end.”

Former tannery employee John Simmons said the facility was built strong and was made to last, for the most part. It also helps that the office building was used as recently as the early 2000s.

“It was built in 1942, and that’s a triple brick outer wall on that thing,” Simmons said. “It’s there to stay as far as the perimeter of the building. It’s as good as it ever was. The inside, I’m not sure. I’ve not been in since the year 2000. When I was on the county commission, we turned that over to the Sheriff’s Department, and they used that office for awhile.”

Those attending the meeting agreed that it is pertinent to tour the facility to see what state it is in before making a decision to move forward with a museum project.

UPCC, the former tannery employees, Helmick and a contractor will take a tour of the tannery facility January 9 at 1 p.m. Those interested in the project who could not attend the initial meeting are welcome to join the tour.

Frank – History of The Durbin Tannery
From Pocahontas County History ~ 1981

In 1902, a group of business people from Wheeling join-ed with Howes Brothers Company of Boston, Mass. to incorporate and build the Pocahontas Tanning Company in Durbin. Two of the incorporators were Frank Hoffman from Wheeling and Frank Howes from Boston.

This group employed Mr. John W. Goodsell who had started a tanning career in Olean, New York, to design and construct the tannery. This was accomplish- ed and hides were started through the new tannery in 1904. Housing was built to shelter the workers in the town that is now Frank. The name came from the first names of the two incorporators named above.

The reason for the location of the tannery at Frank was to utilize the bark from the tremendous growth of hemlock that abounded in the area and was being taken out by the new lumber industries.

Mr. Goodsell had a large family and one of his daughters married Terry H. Cover, who had connections with the tanning industry in and around Elkton, Virginia. Mr. Cover was employed to help operate the tannery. Also brought in to help was Melvin B. Imes, who had started his career in Hyndman, Pennsylvania, and had more recently worked with Mr. Goodsell in Davis. Some of the other names associated with the new plant in those early days were Busby, Vanosdale, Schoonover, Young and Kisner.

The leather produced with a combination of hides and hemlock bark resulted in a very hard leather that was pegged onto shoes with wooden pegs. The leather would be wet and drilled. The pegs would then be driven into the shoe and the leather permitted to dry. The harsh fibers of the leather would take a firm hold on the pegs when dry and this made a very rugged shoe.

After the first World War, the shoe factories were mechanized and sewing machines were starting to come into use to sew the sole to the upper leather. This meant that the use of hemlock leather was over and a softer tannage was required. In 1918, a combination of extracts made from hemlock, oak, chestnut and quebracho (an extract produced from a tree of the same name from South America), was blended and the softer leather was produced.

Mr. Goodsell continued to manage the tannery until 1921 when Harry M. Widney was employed to take over the managerial duties. Mr. Widney had worked for the United States Leather Company since 1900 and came to Durbin from Clearfield, Pennsylvania.

The tannery continued under the management of Mr. Widney as the Pocahontas Tanning Company until 1947, when the company was merged into the then Howes Leather Company, Inc. and was sold to the New York University Foundation. Mr. Widney continued with the company until his death in December, 1960. At that time, the management of the tannery was turned over to his son, Harry Jr., who had joined in the plant with his father in 1939.

In 1970, Mr. Widney joined with Mr. James Fitzgibbons and Mr. B.I. Getto and purchased the company from the New York University Foundation. This group continues to operate the business to date – 1981.

In July, 1969, Tom D. Morrison was employed as superintendent and holds that position today (1981).

The population of Frank is not available, but is estimated at well over 100 – 150.

A post office in Frank was started January 16, 1926. The postmasters were: Norley F. Burner, January 16, 1926; Hazel P. Tracy, July 1, 1945; Kathlyn F. Collins, June 30, 1967 (retired January 1981).

~ Frona F. Williams

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