Role of Tanning Industry in Settling of WaCo to be Presented

The chimney is the remnant of the Shaw Brothers Tanning Co., which dominated Grand Lake Stream until it went out of business in 1883. A presentation about how the tanning industry led to the settlement of Washington County is planned for November 5th. (Photo courtesy of St. Croix Historical Society)

By Lura Jackson


Local history buffs, take note: The St. Croix Historical Society is hosting a special presentation for its upcoming November meeting, featuring Grand Lake Stream guide and former UMaine professor Dale Wheaton. Wheaton, who possesses a natural, easy wit, will be sharing the story of how Washington County was settled in large part by a single, rarely-noted industry: fur tanning.

“Leather tanning was what drew many folks here after the Civil War, creating small towns where there were none, and perhaps explaining why your ancestors and mine settled here,” Wheaton said.

While many associate Washington County with the lumber industry, it was hemlock – a tree that was not sought by the lumber barons – that contributed to much of its post-Colonial Era settlement, Wheaton explained. Hemlock bark was well suited for making tannin liquors used in tanning sole leather. Demand for the product was driven by the thriving Boston shoe market.

“Around here, the leather industry went crazy after the Civil War with numerous jobs attracting poor families from elsewhere in Maine and New Brunswick,” Wheaton elaborated. “But it was short-lived. By the end of the 19th century, the industry collapsed, creating boom and bust communities very much like the gold rush towns of the American West.”

Growing up in Grand Lake Stream and Forest City, Wheaton was fascinated by the stories that he would hear about the “golden era” of the two tannery towns. “As a boy, I would explore the overgrown site of the Forest City tannery, crawl through ancient kilns of refractory brick, and wonder what the granite rooms and berms and vats were all about,” he remembered.

Wheaton had many questions, but nobody living had the answers he was looking for.

As he became an adult himself, Wheaton and his wife came to possess the fishing lodge his parents had run for decades. While serving as an economics professor at the University of Maine in Orono, he found a master’s thesis describing the tanning process in the late 1800s. He proceeded to learn what he could about the methods involved.

“I returned to the site, and I studied the methods of the day, and suddenly the lights came on,” Wheaton said. “Once you understand what those folks were trying to do, and assuming that they were bright and resourceful, much of the mystery began to unfold.”

Wheaton readily admits that tanning is a less-than-savory business, but that isn’t the real point of the history he’ll be sharing. “The methods were not particularly pretty, quite smelly – to the point of disgusting – pillaged the environment, and made people sick. Yet, it is why many of us are here today.”

If there is time after the presentation, Wheaton will entertain questions about his ongoing time as a Maine guide. Copies of his guide-related books will be available for sale.


The presentation will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 5th at the Holmestead, located at 527 Main Street in Calais. Refreshments will be served afterward. Open to the public with no charge.