Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Ohio Leather Company

The Ohio Leather Company

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!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Girard’s Beginnings

I’m sure I’ve driven through Girard, probably up Route 422 toward Warren, following along the course of the Mahoning River. Little did I realize that this road and this river were a significant reason why Girard existed. Girard was originally part of Liberty Township, the five mile by five mile township due west of Hubbard Township. The township was originally owned by four men: Moses Cleaveland (after whom Cleveland was named–they dropped the first “a”), Daniel Lathrop, Christopher Liffinwell, and Sam Huntington, Jr. The township was divided into 25 one mile lots. Lot 10, where Girard is located was in a prime location because the Mahoning River ran through it and State Road, which ran through it connecting Youngstown and Cleveland.

Hieronimus Eckman and his family settled the upper third of Lot 10 in 1802, The next year he petitioned to have an east-west road built between what became Girard and Hubbard. This is now Route 304, Churchill Road. The Eckmans were from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, a heavily German area. Others followed and settled in this area on the north side of Girard, so many that it became known as “Dutchtown.”

The southern third was settled by the Francis Carlton family and established the first school, a log cabin affair, on their land. They were an Irish family from western Pennsylvania. The middle section was owned by a succession of people winding up with Solomon Kline, after whom Kline Street was named

One of the other early families to settle in the area was the Henry Barnhisel family. The family eventually acquired 650 acres just north of Lot 10. The Union Church was the first church in the area and was built on land donated by the Barnhisels. In 1841 Barnhisel’s son built the Classic Revival mansion on State Street seen above.


Stephen Girard

Up until the 1830’s, the area was dominated by prosperous farms served by Andrew McCartney’s Grist Mill, powered by water from a dam across the river. Then plans developed for the Pennsylvania-Ohio Canal that would run from the Ohio River, up the Beaver and Mahoning Rivers and on to Akron. The reservoir above the dam made an ideal place to load and unload canal boats and this fact led to land speculation in which four men bought 42 acres of Solomon Kline’s land to form the town of Girard, likely named after Philadelphia philanthropist Stephen Girard, the richest man in America at the time of his death in 1831. One of the four was David Tod from Brier Hill, future industrialist and governor of Ohio.

The canal reached Girard in 1839. The dam was modified to a two levee dam with a canal lock at the east end. There was a basin north of the dam for loading and unloading barges and this both brought goods into Girard and enabled shipping of the local farm products. Taverns, a post office, a school and residences on the fifteen blocks of lots followed. By 1860, 500 people lived in Girard.

Girard mills

Girard Rolling Mills

The next thirty years was a time of industrial expansion. Fredrick Krehl established a tannery in 1860 that grew to eventually turn out 600 hides a week. The major growth was due to the iron and steel industry. All the needed raw materials were nearby. An influx of Welsh settlers engaged in much of the mining. In 1866, David Tod, Joseph Butler, William Richards, and William Ward built a mill that could turn out 20,000 tons a month. Nearby, also on the south side of the Mahoning, Henry, Myron, and John Wick built the Girard Rolling Mill in 1872. The Girard Stove Works were nearby and eventually became part of Youngstown Foundry and Machine, building coal cars and castings.

Lotze building

Lotze Building

All of this brought money and people into Girard. Fredrick Krehl built a mansion at State and West Broadway while Zenas Kline built a mansion on Churchill Road. The Girard Savings Bank and a newspaper sprang up and the Lotze Building on Liberty Street, which housed a number of stores and the Opera House on the second floor. Churches and new school buildings were erected. By 1890, the population surpassed 1,000 and in 1893 Girard was incorporated as a village with a mayor and city council. A descendant of the first settlers, Ambrose Eckman became mayor.

There is much more to tell of Girard’s story. One of the best accounts on which I drew extensively may be found at “Girard History” hosted by the Girard Free Library. The same factors that accounted for Youngstown’s early industrial development were factors with Girard–the Mahoning River, and nearby raw materials for steel making. The Tods, Wicks, and Butlers led the growth of these industries in both areas. Transportation both by canal and land, later augmented by rail brought goods into and out of both. I suspect some of this might have been a surprise to Hieronimus Eckman and Henry Barnhisel. But they had the foresight to recognize those transportation possibilities, good not only for the products of their farms, but far more.