The Mahoning Valley is known as the Steel Valley because of all the mills lining the river at one time. There was one stretch of along the Mahoning in Girard that might well have been called “The Leather Valley.” Girard was home to the Ohio Leather Company, which at one time was the largest processor of calf leather in the United States.
The tannery business in Girard traces back to the Krehl Tannery in 1868. They manufactured harness and sole leather. They first developed the chrome tanning process with patents submitted by August Schultz in 1884. They were followed in 1899 by what became the Ohio Leather Company. In that year the Mahoning Leather Company (the name was changed to Ohio Leather a few years later) was started using a new chrome tanning process patented by Joseph Smith. The process shortened the tanning process from four months to ten hours. The business thrived in Smith’s few remaining years, before his death in 1903.
The following year, the Krehl Tannery burned down in a spectacular fire leaving The Ohio Leather Company without a local competitor. The Ohio Leather Company grew to employing 500-600 workers. In 1917 the company declared a 33.3 percent dividend, a hefty return on investment in any era. The company continued to thrive during the 1920’s under president V.G. Lumbard, who joined the company as General Manager, with background as an expert tanning engineer. In 1933, during the Depression, the company was valued at 1,666,143.38 and did most of its business on a cash basis. They even sponsored a Marching Band which performed at the Mahoning Country Club. Throughout this time it was known for its fine leather products including leather gloves.
One of the challenges in the tanning business was the smell which clung to workers’ clothing. After a while the workers didn’t notice it but their families did. The more serious challenge, as in other industries, was the rise of unions seeking better conditions and wages. Workers with 10-15 years experience were laid off in 1934 under the guise of lack of business while new employees remain. Their complaints were not upheld however. By 1936, employment was up to 800 and they were voted an extra week’s bonus pay. This did not quell union activity. In March 1937, they staged a sitdown strike demanding recognition of the Boot, Shoe, & Leather Workers Union. On March 23, Ohio Leather agreed to recognize the union along with raising wages and agreeing to a 40 hour week.
The war brought contracts for manufacturing high quality leather for shoes. By 1943, 8,000 calfskins a day were processed by the plant. The company continued to thrive after the war until the late 1950’s when profits began to slip. The problem continued into the 1960’s and in 1963, Beggs and Cobb of Boston acquired a controlling interest in the company. Then in November of 1968, Talcott National of New York acquired the company as foreign competition further imperiled profits. Conditions worsened, layoffs followed, and finally operations ceased November 1, 1971.
The building stood vacant for the next two and a half decades with several fires occurring, and finally a blaze in 1995 that gutted the building. In the years since, the property has been in litigation with the city of Girard over cleanup of industrial wastes from the tanning processes, which has sought the acquisition of the land for parks and bike and walking trails. By 2013, much of this land had finally been acquired, with additional negotiations ongoing for some adjacent railway property.
Perhaps one day people will walk or cycle through this area. Will they remember when one of the largest leather businesses in the country operated here? At least they won’t have to contend with the smell.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!