Austin Millerís daughter, the late Beulah Spatz, was seven or eight when in 1925 she was running near the chicken coops on her fatherís farm and the earth gave way. Their farm was right below the Minister Creek bridge on the Swamp Pike where a large, old, brick house built in 1791 now lies abandoned.
Her screams brought her father who found her sunk in a narrow hole and caught at her arm-pits while suspended over some mysterious cavern. What had given way were the ground and old rotted planks covering one of the many abandoned tanning pits of Schneiderís Tannery which operated on that site for 150 years.
Just as important as the foundry, forge, and mill, the tannery was indispensable to eighteenth and nineteenth century life. Leather was used not only for shoes, belts, aprons, gloves and tools but, importantly, for harness, saddles and tack. Too, there were book covers, writing parchment, furniture, also military and industrial uses. Providing this essential material was no small task.
Schneiderís Tannery stood near the center of Swamp ( the former name of New Hanover).
For almost 200 years the Schneider family was one of the premier families of New Hanover Township. Johannes Schneider the founder purchased 200 acres from realtor John Henry Sprogell on December 9, 1718. ďThe property located at the place where the two churches, Lutheran and Reformed, were to be built.Ē In 1723 he was one of the petitioners ďfor a road to be built from Limerick through Faulknerís Swamp to Oley.Ē This became the Swamp Pike.
His grandson Jacob (b. October 26, 1752) was a tanner and farmer and was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Jacobís son Henry (b. August 26, 1781) was First Lieutenant in Captain George Sensenderferís company, The Montgomery Rifle Greens, in the war of 1812. He too was a tanner and his son, William H. Schneider, (b. June 7, 1811) also a tanner and farmer resided at the Schneider homestead. William H Schneider was a Justice of the Peace, an able businessman, and retired some years before his death leaving a large estate. Readers of this column may remember him as one of the founders of the New Hanover Township Schools and later Swamp Independent School.
But our subject here is Schneiderís tannery and tanning.
Tanning leather: how it was done.
Schneiderís Tannery was strategically located by the Minister Creek since a good supply of running water was necessary. After slaughtering, the hides of cattle and pigs were scraped and washed in the stream to remove blood, loose flesh or other soiling.
The tanning process took a year and involved a goodly number of vats sunk in the earth containing a variety of noxious and malodorous solutions.
The first vat contained a quick-lime solution obtained from burnt limestone. The hides were soaked in this very caustic bath for a time and, when removed, most of the hair could be scraped off. The hair/lime residue was then used by plasterers along with sand and more lime, the hair being the binding agent of the mortar. The hides, scraped free of the bulk of the hair, were returned to the liming vats which by now contained large quantities of decaying organic matter full of bacteria which aided the process of hair and connective tissue removal by eating away the cylindrical sheath that bound the hairs to the hide. In a procedure which took about two more months, the skins were alternately soaked for a few days and then taken out and left in the air for a few days. By the end of the whole process the remaining hair could easily be removed without harming the hide. The whole process took about six months.
Having been soaked in this powerful caustic solution the hides would become useless, stiff and brittle. So the liming would have to be neutralized with an acid. This was accomplished by soaking them in vats of manure solutionóchicken manure being one of the best. The bacterial action of the decaying manure produced over time an acidic slurry that, after a period of soaking and washing, rendered the hides ready for the tanning process.
The tanner had been working on these hides for over half a year and still hadnít started to tan them yet! That process will be explained next week in Part Two.