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The Howes Tannery
Making Leather in Pocahontas County

Text and Photograph by Laurie Cameron

The Howes Tannery
George Hipes, at left, and Melvin Shinaberry prepare hides for hair and flesh removal in the beam house of the Howes Tannery in Durbin, Pocahontas County, in 1972. The tannery was once the world’s largest producer of leather for shoe soles.

My first glimpse of the interior of the Howes Leather Tannery near Durbin, Pocahontas County, came in 1972 when I went there to buy a 55-gallon drum. What I saw looked so interesting that I asked if I might come back and take some photographs. To my surprise they said yes. I showed up a few days later with my camera. As I went in, it was as if I had climbed out from a time machine into a scene from the industrial revolution, which wasn’t all that far from the truth. The Pocahontas Tanning Company factory had opened here in 1903, and the plant still contained much of the original machinery.

The J.G. Huffman & Sons company of Wheeling built the tannery in a joint venture with Howes Leather, a Boston leather brokerage. The new town, consisting of the factory, an office building, some 40-odd company houses, and a boarding house, was named Frank in honor of Frank Huffman and Frank Howes, presidents of the two venture partners. Durbin and Frank are located in the north end of Pocahontas County, along the Greenbrier River at the foot of Cheat Mountain.

In the early to mid-20th century, there were a large number of tanneries in West Virginia in places such as Petersburg, Elkins, Davis, and Marlinton — wherever there were the right trees, a river, and a labor force you could site a tannery. Hemlock provided the bark of choice for tanning shoe sole leather in the early days of the century. The timber and leather-tanning industries were complementary: one sold wood, the other used tree bark to make tanning extract.

Frank was built under the supervision of John W. Goodsell who served as general manager until 1921.

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