Fort Ross Tannery - Important Industry of Early California
Fort Ross was a major leather goods manufacturing center of early Colonial California with a well-established tanning industry that emerged from the need to process the sea otters catch. Before any money could be made from international fur trade, where extremely soft and warm sea otter pelts were the most sought after commodity, the catch had to be processed through a procedure called tanning which changed raw hide into a leather product. A tanner was a respected and valued profession at Fort Ross.
A tannery was one of the first industries assembled on Sandy Beach at the mouth of Fort Ross Creek after the arrival of the Russians to the ancient Kashia village of Metini. French explorer Eugene Duflot de Mofras, who visited California in 1840, left this description of the "shop equipped with various machines for tanning, dressing, and preparing hides, 10 meters long and 6 deep." According to Major Ernest Rufus who administered the Fort in the 1840s after Russians had left, the tannery had “six vats in all, constructed of heavy, rough redwood slabs, and each with a capacity of fifty barrels. They had all the usual appliances necessary to conduct a tannery, such as scrapers, mullers, etc., but these implements were large and rough in their make."
Because the sea otter catch quickly declined after the founding of the colony, the tanners soon switched their attention to processing other products including cow hides, deer hides, and sea lion skins to make leather products for international and domestic use. A wonderful article “The Beginnings of Tanning in California
” by Patricia M. Bauer traces back the Russian tanning legacy in California which was adopted by California pioneers.
After slaughtering the animals, the hides were cured using salt to prevent putrefaction. Then they were washed in water to remove all the extraneous matter such as salt, blood, dirt and dung. The next step of production involved placing the skins in vats containing a variety of solutions.
First, the hides were transferred to a vet with a lime and water solution to soften the hides to allow for the removal of excess hair, fat and any residue left on the skins. It is believed that lime was obtained from sea shells after they were burned in a kiln. The hides then entered a tedious soaking and resting period in the vats of weaker lime infused solution which took up to six months to complete.
The next phase of the leather production journey involved preserving and coloring the hides. An important step of the production process involved the use of a “stamping machine” to ground the bark from local oak trees to extract tannin, Bauer notes, explaining that this machine was powered by the windmill. According to Rufus, the machine "was made of solid iron, and was about four inches square. It was hung upon a crank, upon the main shaft of the wind wheel, and the motion was thus given to it. It was a simple and very effective device, but required the constant attention of an operator to turn the bark and stir it up."
According to Bauer, the tanning process consisted of “(1) coloring, by suspension in vats of weak or old ‘liquor;’ (2) the ‘handling’ of the hides by placing them in a series of vats of tan liquor… (3 ) the ‘dusting’ of the hides with a small quantity of solid tanning material, after which they are placed in vats of freshly leached tannin. Here they remain for several weeks, allowing "bloom" - a yellowish powdery coating - to be deposited, the reaction which causes the bloom ensuring a firm, hard leather.” Upon completion of these steps, the hides were drained and scoured to remove the “bloom” from the grain, before being left to dry slowly in the wind. During the drying process a coating of oil was constantly applied to the skins to keep the grain surface from drying out. The skins were now ready to be sold or used by the Russian American Company to make leather goods such as boots, saddles, and hats.
When Sutter bought the Russian property in 1841 he also purchased the Fort Ross tannery, which was put to use by Major Rufus. “Sutter, his business partner, Major Rufus...decided to manufacture leather, taking advantage of the Russian equipment and using a recipe for tanning that was in an ‘encyclopaedia of scientific information’ which he had brought with him,” Bauer claims in her article, noting that the pioneer had very little initial success, until he visited another tannery, most likely in Santa Cruz, to observe the process. Upon his return, Rufus resurrected the tanning industry at Fort Ross, supplying plenty of hides to the local market.
“After his visit to the tannery, Rufus tried making leather again at the fort and this time with success. The nearest market for leather, according to his account, was Monterey, so he ‘hied himself’ thither, ‘with his roll of leather on a pack pony,’ sold his product readily, and continued operating at Fort Ross for some years,” Bauer observed.