Recollections of Manasse Block Tannery

Excerpts from an essay By Lauren Coodley
Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article April 2006

A tannery-wife says she “doesn’t remember any stories other than it was hard/dirty work and that he didn’t have set hours. He went in at 7 and worked until everything was done and many days that was early afternoon so he would fish the Napa River.”

Peter Manasse wrote: “I am the 4th generation and only tanner and Manasse left in this town. Emanuel Manasse was my great-grandfather.” We discussed how it all began in l869, when Sawyer Tannery used to cure hides with salt and send them to Chicago for tanning. His great-grandfather Manasse came up to Napa on horse and buggy “and said, look I can tan those things.” He went to work for Sawyer and became a partner almost immediately. 

Peter Manasse explained that after his great-grandfather joined the Sawyer Company he rapidly developed new methods for tanning sheepskin and buckskin. Emanuel’s son, Henry Manasse, opened a shoe store downtown and built a family home at 845 Jefferson Street. Emanuel’s other sons were Ed and August. Both began working at Sawyers, but Ed stayed with the company, while August founded a tannery in Berkeley, Manasse Block Tannery. Irving went to work at Sawyer’s, along with his brothers, and later founded his own tannery next door, CalNap, in 1945, the year after his father’s death. Ed and his wife had four boys: Gerald, Robert, Phillip, and Irving (Peter’s father). 

Peter Manasse remembers the “whistle blowing every day at seven and one and four,” the chemicals and dissolved hair being tossed into the Napa River, while the fleshings went to a tallow company. He remembers the barges coming up the river bringing diesel fuel for their boiler, and the hides arriving by freight train. He remembers driving a big flatbed truck across the 3rd street Bridge to pick up the hides at the train depot at 4th and Soscol. Sawyer Tannery was such a major employer that “most people did work at the tannery in high school or grammar school.” Napa was so small that, “if I drove my parents’ car too fast downtown, a police officer would call them.”

Originally Sawyer made baseball gloves, which they sold to all major baseball glove manufacturers. After the Japanese got into that business around 1955, Sawyers was forced to switch to shoe leather. In l961 Pete Manasse came home from the Navy and worked in the business making shoe leather, until 1980 when half the shoes were being imported. Every year after, another 10% were imported, and by 1990, 100% of shoes were imported from other countries. Now, he tells me, all tanneries in America are gone.

What destroyed the tanneries was the policy of free trade. Recently, David Sirota wrote: “Free trade is all about allowing corporations to move capital wherever they please, without regard to the labor, human rights, environmental and—yes—security consequences of those moves.” (San Francisco Chronicle, February 24, 2006).

Wanting to learn more about the ways international events affect our local lives, I discovered the following information from a local leather supply shop:

“This area [Napa] contained the necessary elements of good leather crafting: soft water, fur bearing animals, and tanning materials from tree bark… Between 80 and 90% of the leather was tanned in the US. During both World Wars and the Depression, the tanneries prospered due to the constant demand for military and domestic leather products. They remained stable until the late 1970’s when three international events took place: Russia was at war with Afghanistan, the Ayatollah took over Iran (hence an embargo on African hairsheep), and Turkey chose not to export raw sheepskins. These countries supplied the fine raw material used to produce lightweight organ leather. Further, the efforts of the Environmental Protection Act caused many tanneries to close rather than invest in compliance measures.

What a surprise to discover the connection between countries so much in the news today with our own town’s history! My first article on tanneries concluded: “A man could make a living with his hands throughout most of the twentieth century, after unions won wages that allowed working class families to survive without charity.” Wayne Taylor, who probably grew up in one of those families, sent me this description of his childhood near the tannery:

“In the late 30s, I lived on Pine Street and attended Shearer Elementary in the seemingly huge (to a child) brick building. The tannery was only a few blocks away. I recall going to a side door of the building on a warm summer day and getting free leather scraps from a kindly gentleman employee whose machine was close by. A leather scrap combined with rubber strap cut from an old auto inner tube formed the action (parts for a slingshot)! Of course, this all started with a forked piece of wood trimmed from a tree. Now we had a neat toy for free. Remember, a Depression was still on. Several of us neighborhood kids would then compete to see who had the best accuracy in hitting tin cans with our homemade slingshot.

“Another summer memory that occurred near the tannery was watching the older kids pushing hand powered lawn mowers over the weeds on the vacant lot at Coombs and Elm. This preceded lively games of baseball with bats and balls all provided by the participating kids. Up Pine Street, and across from Shearer School was the little market where we could exchange scrounged soft drink bottles for penny candy. Most of us kids did not know there was a Depression on. We just accepted what we had as normal and made the most of it. Your article caused the recall of these pleasant carefree memories for me.”

The words of these three Napans confirm Carol Kammen’s insight that “local history is a process of learning, and is about explaining causes—the how, and the why, of the past.”

Warmest thanks to Wayne Taylor, Peter Manasse (now manager of Tulocay Cemetary) and Sharon Arnold for helping to write this history For more information, see Carol Kammen, On Doing Local History and Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future – and What It Will Take to Win it Back. The following poem was inspired by what I have learned.

They called it tanning

Then, and it wasn’t a booth

Where white girls would bake

Brown, but a building where

Animal skins were cured,

Not like sick people, but

Preserved, like pickles—

Alchemized, perhaps, into

Something called leather

That became a glove you

Could catch with, or slide

Your fingers inside.

They called it tanning

And it was a craft, a skill,

A living: dangerous, but

No more so than lying

In a booth to become brown,

Like the girls do these days.

You were a tanner, then,

And you worked with your

Hands, alongside other men.

Your leather became shoes that

People wore to work, to

Funerals, shoes that were worn

Until discarded: where are

All those shoes now,

Dropped at Goodwill?

They called it tanning,

After the animals had already

Died, while the river turned

Brown from the chemicals

And from the hair still

On the skins. Yet something

Was made, in that factory,

At least a living, as well

As hand and footwear, and

If the big clock no longer

Rings, and if there are no rhythms

Here and nothing made, just

Time lost, spent, missing—

They called it tanning.

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Begun January 2016