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