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"Hindsights"


Looking back at:

Making Leather
at Itz Tannery

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

While most of us think of leather as cowhide, Erwin Itz of Fredericksburg made leather out of just about every animal hide you can imagine - from a rabbit to an elephant. He could turn cowhide into chaps, deerskin into gloves and the hide of a bear into a floor rug, with a head or without.

Tanning is the process for transforming animal hide into leather. It is a familiar term, but there is some confusion about it. In my family tanning hides had a whole other meaning, although leather was involved.

Tanning, for the purpose of making leather, preserves and softens animal hides and makes them more durable. An untanned hide, like any other organic material, soon begins to rot. Tanning produces a chemical reaction that alters the protein structure of the hide and dramatically slows the natural process of decomposition.

The stuff that makes it happen is called "tannin" from which the word tanning is derived. Tannin is found naturally in tree bark and grape skins, among other things.

Tanning was not a glamorous occupation, but a tanner produced a product in high demand. Leather had so many uses in the early 20th century, life without it was hard to imagine, especially in places like the Texas Hill Country that had not fully come to grips with the industrial age.

Leather, like plastic in more modern times, was everywhere. Leather was in the house and in the barn. People wore it, sat on it and used it to hitch horses to the wagon.

The Texas Hill Country, with its livestock raising and deer hunting, produced a lot of animal skins, but many of them were left to the bugs and the buzzards. Gillespie County ranchers and hunters had to send their hides and wild animal pelts to San Antonio and other faraway places to have them tanned, which wasn't very practical.

Then in 1915 Erwin Itz began tanning skins and pelts as a hobby at his father's farm in the Palo Alto Community on Lower Crabapple Road north of Fredericksburg. His neighbors saw his good work and brought in hides to tan. The pelts piled up, and in 1920 he went into the tanning business.


Fredericksburg TX - Itz Tannery
Itz Tannery
Photo courtesy of Daniel and Debra Ottmers.

In the beginning Erwin used a centuries-old process called bark tanning. He soaked animal hides in a wooden washtub using a tanning agent made by boiling the bark of a blackjack oak tree.

When tanning moved from a hobby to a business, Erwin used a more modern tanning agent called Chromium Sulfate. Chrome tanning is faster than bark tanning, and it makes a better product.

Itz Tannery had a ready market for leather harnesses, latigos (a long leather strap on western saddles to tighten and secure the cinch), chaps for working cowboys and other hard usage leather goods.

Fredericksburg TX - Itz Tannery Ad
Itz Tannery Ad
Courtesy Fredericksburg Standard

In the 1930s Erwin Itz bought a Delco light plant. The power it produced ran electric lights and sewing machines.

Over time Erwin added new equipment including a splitting machine, shaving machine, rolling jack, staking machine, tanning drums, pickling vats and giant washing machines.

Erwin Itz brought his brother Arthur into the business along Erwin's son Leo and Arthur's son Elmer. At the same time the line of products expanded to include leather coats, fur chokers, belts, deer skin gloves, floor rugs and shoe soles.

Itz Tannery dressed sheepskins, goatskins and cowhides by the wagon load. During deer season Erwin catered to hunters. He would dress a buck skin for $1.75.

In the 1930s Itz Tannery employed Abilene rancher F. L. Binda as tanner and a taxidermist. Beginning in 1939 Erwin made arrangements with A. T. Wendler, a taxidermist from Boerne, to mount deer heads.

Of all the skins dressed at Itz Tannery between 1920 its closing in the 1950s, one hide stands head and shoulders above the rest. When a popular elephant died at the San Antonio Zoo, officials sent the skin to Itz for tanning. The zoo then cut the tanned skin into squares and sold them as creepy souvenirs. It was enough to make your skin crawl.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights" June 1, 2021 Column

Sources:
"Its Tannery One Of The Best In The State," Fredericksburg Standard, July 15, 1937.
Daniel and Debra Ottmers, family records.




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