Col. Edwards’ Tannery, Northampton

Submitted by Barbara Pelissier, Westhampton

In 1790, Col. William Edwards, grandson of Northampton’s Rev. Jonathan Edwards, started a tannery on the Roberts Meadow Brook in the northwesterly corner of Northampton.  The Upper Roberts Meadow dam now stands where Col. Edwards’ tannery operated.  The dam is slated to be demolished by the City of Northampton in 2015, despite a determination of eligibility for listing on the Registry of Historic Places by the Mass. Historic Commission. As you will learn, Col. Edwards’ innovations regarding leather manufacturing helped to put Northampton on the map.

“The first company in the [leather manufacturing] business to be incorporated owed its existence to Col. Edwards’ enterprise, for it was his extensive tanneries at Northampton, Cummington and Chester that were purchased by the men who incorporated the Hampshire Leather Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts, with a capital of $100,000 in 1809. These works then had a capacity of 16,000 full-grown hides per annum.” ~ The Americana, Vol.10

“I enlarged my business from year to year, and in 1794, I sent a quantity of calfskins and upper leather, skirting, harness and bridle leather, to Boston, for a market – the first leather that was sent from Hampshire County to a market.” [p.42] “My loss by fire led me to contemplate improvements in tanning.  I found the whole fraternity utterly ignorant of the nature and results of the business.  I never saw a man who could tell how many pounds of leather could be made from a given quantity of hides, or how many pounds of leather could be made from a given quantity of bark; say one cord.  Tanning is a chemical process.  All that the most experienced knew was that immersing the hides in a decoction of lime and water a few days would loosen the hair, so that it could be worked off on the tanner’s “beam;” that the lime could be expelled from the hide, after dehairing, by soaking it in water, but in a shorter time, by soaking it in hen dung and water and again working it over the beam; and then applying ground bark to the hide, renewing it once in 30 days – for from six months to two years, according to the thickness of the hide. Then the leather was taken out of the vats, rinsed in clear water and hung up to dry – as soon as dry being fit for sale or use…I had found by careful observation that I could forward my tanning more in the months of July, August and September, than in the other nine months of the year.  The cause was obvious – the temperature of the weather.  My first thought of improvement in this point was, that if I could get a summer temperature for my liquors all the year, it would be a valuable achievement.  After numerous experiments, I contrived a leach with a copper heather or cylinder passing through its whole length, adapted to having a fire built in its mouth, the smoke being carried off through an elbow in the rear.  The leach was filled with new bark and with weak liquor or with water, by the aid of a pump, and fire applied.  This brought the liquor to boiling heat in 24 hours (but scalding heat was found to be sufficient to exhaust the bark, even new bark, within a week).  More than two-thirds the time necessary for the process was thus saved, besides the great saving in more effectually extracting the tannin from the bark than in the old method…(more descriptions of other improvements to the location of the leaches, vats etc and to use water power instead of horse power) “With an improved modern built tannery, with good water power, I have year after year tanned 30,000 to 40,000 hides with the labor of 20 hands.  I have built six tanneries – extensive ones, the first in Northampton, commenced in the autumn of 1790, and the last in Hunter, Greene Co., New York, in 1830.  This last had seven powerful water wheels, one for grinding bark, four for the hide mills in the beam house, one for a pump and one for a rolling machine to finish the leather…So much is the community benefited by my improvements, and very many individual fortunes have been made by use of them.”   ~Memoirs of Col. William Edwards: formerly of Stockbridge and Northampton, by William Henry Edwards, William W. Edwards, Cabot Science Library, Harvard University p. 40-51

“These forward steps in the making of leather came from a combination of ordinary incidents and practical men who saw in them suggestions for better things.  One of the pioneers in bringing about these changes in this country was Colonel William Edwards.  He built a tannery at Northampton, Mass, about 1790…Colonel Edwards’s first improvement on the tannery of the day was the making of a place beneath the vats for carrying away the spent liquor … arranged his leaches in tiers, one above the other, and used a suction-pump for raising the liquor.  He built a mill for grinding his bark and, instead of the customary horse as motor power, used water.  Perceiving that his leather tanned faster in summer, the application of heat was suggested, and the result was the invention of the copper heater.  Dry hides had become very plentiful at that time, and Colonel Edwards had used a stone wheel to soften them.  This, however, was a slow operation, and as an experiment the colonel took a few of the hides one day to a fulling mill that was near [see D.E. Hoxie’s manuscript noting a fulling mill 40 rods below the bark mill].  The result of that venture was the hide mill.  The work of Colonel Edwards was amplified and supplemented by others, until the leather industry had become one of the most firmly established in the country.  Of these changes, Mr. Pratt, to whom reference has been made, said in 1859: …The hide mill was the invention, or rather adaptation, of Colonel Edwards, of Northampton, to whom reference has already been made, and the patent granted him by the Government bears the date of December 30, 1812.  The next patent on this mill was not taken out until 1867, the patentee being Mr. J.M. Brown, of Boston, thus showing how comparatively few and slow were the changes in it.  The object of these mills is to soften the tough, dry hides so as to render them not only easier of manipulation but readier to absorb the tannin…” The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 41 pp. 351-356.

“After years of great struggle he succeeded in business and developed the process by which instead of employing one hand for every one hundred sides he could tan 40,000 with twenty lads and the cost was reduced from twelve cents a pound to four cents.  The quality was improved even more than the cost was reduced. When the war of 1812 broke out he had practically the only important tannery in the United States, but the war scare and attendant evils led to his failure in 1815.  He was now 45 years old with a wife and nine children.  He went to work in a factory for day wages to keep his family supplied with the necessities of life.  By some misunderstanding and a combination of law suits his patents were lost to him.”  Chapter X Jukes-Edwards: A Study in Education and Heredity by A.E. Winship, Litt.D., R.L. Myers & Co., Harrisburg, PA, 1900. 

“Edwards’ tannery was one example which for a short time made Northampton an important center of the industry:  Edwards, in 1794, had been the first to ship Hampshire County leather to Boston.  With others he established auxiliary tanneries in Chester and Cummington.  In 1809, all three were incorporated as the Hampshire Leather Mfg. with Boston merchants as chief shareholders.  In the years 1809 and 1810 Edwards sent to market leather valued at $175,397 (Hannay, 28), a large sum for the period, even split between three different towns.” ~ MHC Reconnaissance Survey Town Report on Northampton dated 1982, p. 10, 11.

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