Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article March 2006.
A Tannery in a Town
By Lauren Coodley
I see it sometimes, and it could be under glass, a little museum of people and implements from another place and time. I’m there, too, but slightly to one side, my natural position, the onlooker, the interloper. The Village and its life was taken from them, and it was given to me. I tried my best to return it.
-New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Town, John Baskin
Once upon a time, seven wharves were constructed on the Napa waterfront, along with lumberyards and warehouses. Back then; steamers carried both agricultural and industrial products, sometimes transporting entire flocks and herds of livestock to our docks. French Albert Sawyer from New Hampshire was visiting Napa when he noticed that local butchers were discarding sheep pelts with wool still on them. He purchased a pile of pelts and started a wool-pulling business on the banks of the Napa River, aided by Chinese laborers. Soon he was curing hides, pickling them in brine and shipping them back East.
In l870, he and his father founded the Sawyer Tanning Company on South Coombs Street. A year later, French Sawyer invited Emmanuel Manasse, a German immigrant who was running a successful tannery in the Mission District of San Francisco, to move with his wife Amelia to Napa and go to work for him. Manasse joined the company and rapidly developed new methods for tanning sheepskin and buckskin.
In small towns like Napa, in the early part of the twentieth century, there were few telephones and only one operator, Mary Stoddard. When she resigned to take a position with Sawyer, the Napa Daily Journal of June 7, l900 urged citizens to be patient “until the new operator becomes accustomed to the names of the subscribers.” That year, the tannery was buying deerskins for $.38 a pound in the summer, in winter, for $.28. Wet, salted cowhides cost $.09 a pound and horse hides cost $2.00.
By 1909, Sawyer Tannery had developed Napatan Waterproof Leather and Napa Patent Leather. Emanuel Manasse eventually became a co-owner of the business. In l9l7, his relative Henry Manasse opened a shoe store downtown and built a family home at 845 Jefferson Street; it is pictured in Tony Kilgallen’s Napa: an Architectural Walking Tour (Arcadia Publishing, 200l). When the supply demands of World War I caused a shortage of chemicals, Sawyer sent engineers and miners into the hills and found chrome ore from which they made dichromate of soda, the chemical essential to tanning.
By the Twenties, Sawyer was the first tannery west of Chicago to produce patent leather, and in 1927, it developed chromed tan leather, the ideal material for fashioning softball gloves, and later, leather for baseball and welding gloves. In the Twenties and Thirties, South Franklin Street, a couple of blocks from the Tannery, was a neighborhood of working class residents: tanners, paper hangers, stevedores, river men, and their families.
Lin Weber sketches the scene:
“Edna and Rita Guisti grew up in that neighborhood on Levee Street (now Riverside Drive). They went barefoot all summer, wearing ragged cotton dresses with bloomers underneath. They often climbed the big oak of Oak Street, which was by the water. It had a rope swing, on which they swung as high as possible before jumping off into the water… The river was still clear; carp would come to the surface, and children tried to spear them with willow branches to sell to Napa’s remaining Chinese families.
“The big whistle on top of the water tower at the Sawyer Tannery was one of life’s regulators for children like Edna and Rita, and for their parents as well. It blew every day of every year at 6 am, 12 noon and 4 pm.” (Roots of the Present: Napa Valley l900-l950, 20l).
Despite the national economic collapse in the Thirties, Napans were partially sheltered from the bitter effects of the Depression when Julian Weidler opened the Rough Rider Clothing Company in 1936. Rough Rider brought new training and employment opportunities: classes were offered at Napa High to teach girls to operate power sewing machines. Eventually, Rough Rider employed over five hundred local women, all members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Rough Rider Company even extended credit to its retail customers, and many remember being saved from economic disaster by the company’s generosity.
Sawyer Tannery continued to thrive, turning out woolen lining for coats and all kinds of gloves. The photos on the previous page illustrate the atmosphere of the tannery: hard work, sometimes dangerous and always involving exposure to the toxic materials used to tan hides. Even so, a man could make a living with his hands throughout most of the twentieth century, after unions won wages that allowed working class families to survive without charity.
All of that began to change in the decade after these photos were taken, after corporations were allowed by “free trade” to move their operations out of our country. Napa factories shut down one by one. Rough Rider closed its doors in 1976, Kaiser Steel in 1983, and Sawyer Tannery gave final notice to its employees in 1990. With the clanging of the great doors and the leveling of the buildings, with the transition of blue collar workplaces to art galleries and tourist centers, scores of workers were displaced and young high school graduates lost the opportunity to work at manufacturing jobs.
As historian Carol Kammen writes, “Local history is a process of learning, and it is about explaining causes—the how, and the why, of the past… the letters of a prominent family might be held in a local archive while the letters of a laborer in a tannery were not thought about or considered important enough to collect.” (On Doing Local History, Altamira Press, 200l). What stories could the men in these photos tell us, and who will pass them on? Will their personal histories be lost or forgotten, left in shoeboxes and family scrapbooks? Please send your memories of the tannery and other untold parts of Napa history to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o History Department, Napa Valley College, Napa, 94558.