Field Trip to the Tanner's Shop

Thursday, February 16, 2012

We walked into a little old building in the small town of Wellsburg. In the front room, the young tanner (I’d say, in his early 20s) and his dad greeted us and let us feel, smell, and look at various pelts and hides. There were red and gray fox, coyote, mink, opossum, skunk, beaver, raccoon, cow, and buffalo hides--all very beautiful, soft, and fluffy. Many of the pelts were so complete that we wondered how the tanner got the animal out of them. We were soon to find out. He led us into the back room where we saw a stack of inside-out raccoon skins stretched over boards. How on earth does one get inside-out raccoons? We were soon to find that out also…

Three raccoons were hanging from a nearby scaffold, The tanner took one down and brought it to a table where he sharpened his knife. First, he cut the hind legs free, then did two perpendicular cuts on the belly between the hind legs. A special mechanism quickly freed the tail, and soon the whole hind quarters were “un-coated.” Then the tanner pressed a button which lowered a hanger-like apparatus with two choke-chains hanging from it. These choke-chains were attached to the raccoon’s hind legs, and the tanner proceeded to pull the pelt down (with gloved hands) toward the raccoon’s head, pressing a button to raise the hanger as he made progress. Soon the raccoon and its coat parted ways, and the tanner pulled a retractable table that looked a lot like an ironing board out of the wall. On this table, he used an interesting scrapper (or two-edged sword) to scrape all the fat off the pelt. Afterwards, he tacked the inside-out raccoon skin to a board, and it was ready to be added to the stack to dry. Once the pelts dry, the tanner explained, he takes them to a furrier’s auction where he sells them to the big furriers. The pelts that he processes himself are put into a rotating cylinder filled with water and chemicals (called a pickle) for about 3 days. After that, they go into a big “tumbler,” a drum that looks a bit like a Ferris wheel. The pelts tumble around in this contraption like clothes do in your dryer. The tanner made this tumbler out of plywood, and says that the mechanical part which makes the machine work was the most difficult part of the whole construction. A porcupine hide was hanging on the wall. The porcupine can’t go through the tumbler, he explained, so the hide isn’t as soft… “But I don’t think the customer who sent it in will be wanting to pet it anyway,” the tanner said as he and Papa inspected the hide for its quills. “I would like to do an alligator some day,” the tanner commented as we left the room. I studied the walls, shelves, and scaffolding of the shop as we left. Everything looked very neat, and gave me the impression of home-made… In any ordinary old Iowa shop, one might expect to enter and find old rusty toolboxes, rags, oil barrels, tractor tires, and living varmints, but here--between the golden lab, Harley, and the owners--those critters don’t have a chance! The demonstration in tanning was very interesting and informative, but the greatest lesson I re-learned is the importance of the “can-do” mentality. Those who are not afraid of work can get a lot done!

The tanner sent a few raccoon skins home with my mother, and she made a coon skin hat. The tanner liked the hat, so soon, the kitchen table was piled with pelts soon to become hats. One of the neatest creations my mother has sewn so far is the skunk/fox hat shown below.