“There will be no
synthetics in my shop.”
Acentury ago, immigrants flocked to Canadian shores in the hopes of securing a better life for themselves and their children.
For many, such as the Mennonites and Ukrainians from Russia, it was a desperate bid to escape a tyrannical government.
On the contrary, Peter and Rina Schueler, who formerly operated a 140-year-old tannery doing 400 hides per week in the Netherlands, were crowded out in 2007 by a combination of urban sprawl – and the tyranny of petty bureaucrats and an arcane tax system that made it evermore difficult to continue as a viable business.
The town that was home to their operation eventually encroached ever closer upon their property, until they were surrounded on all sides. “We were stuck in the middle of a little town and they didn’t want us anymore,” said Rina.
Eventually, under pressure from increasingly onerous regulations, they decided to sell out. The large equipment went to Pakistan and Romania, but the heirloom tools came with them to Canada.
PACKED THEIR BAGS
They packed up much of their equipment into four shipping containers and arrived in May of 2007 in Rapid City, where they bought a 240-acre hobby farm.
They also bought a large, empty building downtown that once housed the town’s funeral home, and moved in their stitching machines and assorted leather-working equipment along with a supply of leather from the old tannery.
Peter entertained notions of starting up a tannery again in Manitoba, but he has since shelved the idea. Even though his tannery would use only inputs such as lime, alum, salt, and tree-bark extracts – the same vegetable-based substances that have been in use by small-scale, artisan tanners for over 2,000 years – the environmental and regulatory hurdles were too much to overcome.
For instance, to get started, he would have had to invest a huge sum of money to get set up in an area zoned for heavy industry in either Brandon or Winnipeg, comply with all the environmental regulations, try to find enough workers, and then compete with low-cost, Third World operators.
“If you want to start a tannery – wherever in the world – you need at least $4 million to $5 million. And that’s only with five to 10 employees,” he said. “You also need a lot of space.”
He noted that over the past two decades, there was been an exodus of tannery operations to countries with cheap labour and lax environmental controls such as India, China and Mexico. That’s because the majority of tanneries now use a toxic chromium process that can turn a hide into leather in a matter of hours instead of months. It’s stretchier, however, and not appropriate for many uses, he said.
In the traditional method, tree bark is ground into powder, then the “tannin” is dissolved in the tanning vats, where the hides are left to soak. Oak bark, which contains 62 per cent tannins makes especially good, hard, durable leather for the soles of shoes, but almost any kind of bark can be used – even tea leaves, said Schueler. Each kind gives a different kind of leather, soft or hard, he added.
“Actually, you can tan with anything, as long as it has tannin in it,” he said.
Most artisan and large-scale tanneries now use quebracho, which is made from the heartwood of the “axe-breaker” tree native to South America. At 98 per cent tannin, it makes a reddish, soft leather.
A century ago in the northeastern United States, there were over 8,000 small tanneries based near streams and rivers, tanning in pits using extracts of oak and hemlock bark in a process that took up to 11 months to finish a steer hide.
Some operations in North America and Europe are seeking to resurrect the old methods, and are attempting to market “organic leather” produced without harmful or dangerous chemicals.
In Canada, now, there are only eight tanneries left, mainly in Ontario.
Peter, who is now 50, decided that with his children nearly grown up and interested in other things, it would not be worth the headaches.
Instead, he plans to put his skills to work by adding value to leather produced elsewhere – doing custom work, restoration, as well as making and repairing high-quality draft horse harness and saddles.
Rina has joined a spinning circle, and is making garments from locally grown wool.
In the past, Peter has made such diverse articles as a historically accurate, French Napoleonic war-era backpack for a war re-enactor, to obscure leather parts for Harley-Davidson motorcycle buffs and an antique Rolls-Royce.
His latest project for the townsfolk is a black Santa Claus belt with a huge buckle – extra long to reach around the Jolly Old Soul’s great girth.
He still controls trade secrets for the family tannery’s leather-finishing recipes, and has struck a deal with a larger tannery back in the Netherlands for their use in exchange for a regular supply of top-quality hides for his manufacturing operation in Rapid City.
“There will be no synthetics in my shop,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t like that crap.” [email protected]