Archaeology of Industry: F. Shaw & Brothers Tannery of Maine

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A historic ink and watercolor depiction of a Shaw & Brothers Tannery in Maine by Artist John Martin, 1882-1883, part of Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.
A historic ink and watercolor depiction of a Shaw & Brothers Tannery in Maine by Artist John Martin, 1882-1883, part of Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

Update East: Taking a look at our industrial preserves

Here in TAC’s East office we have saved and protected three sites related to early historic industries in this country. One of them is the Pamplin Pipe Factory in Virginia , the second is Clinton’s Ditch in New York, an original section of the Erie Canal; and the third is the F. Shaw & Brothers Tannery in Maine. These sites are valuable for understanding the origins of certain industries, how they impacted the surrounding region, and what life was like for the people operating the associated facilities.

The Shaw & Brothers Tannery site is located along the Canadian border in Washington County, Maine. The property containing the site was acquired by the Conservancy in 2003. It contains the remains of a tannery that operated from 1869 to 1896. During peak production workers produced over 600 tons of leather a year.

The steamer H.L. Drake in Washington County, Maine. The steamer would carry loads of bark to the tannery.
The steamer H.L. Drake in Washington County, Maine, circa 1890. The steamer would carry loads of bark to the tannery.

The tannery was acquired by F. Shaw & Brothers, a Boston firm, in 1869. F. Shaw & Brothers owned numerous plants in the northeastern U.S. and in Canada, and in order to support their operations also owned mills, stores, workers’ tenements, timber lots, and steamers that operated on nearby lakes. In some cases this meant that a large percentage of a town’s businesses were owned by the tannery. In 1873 the operation based in Washington County consisted of 12 machines worked by 40 employees. Each worker was paid $8 per week. It is possible that more workers were hired during peak season. Hides to be tanned were imported from the southwestern United States as well as from Central and South America.

Image of a load of bark destined for the bark mill. The bark was ground into a powder before being used for tanning. This image references a tannery in Wisconsin, which is where the Shaw family reestablished its tannery business following their failure in the northeast. Image courtesy of the Rib Lake Historical Society.
Image of a load of bark destined for the bark mill. The bark was ground into a powder before being used for tanning. This image references a tannery in Wisconsin, which is where the Shaw family reestablished its tannery business following their failure in the northeast. Image courtesy of the Rib Lake Historical Society.

Following the depression of 1873, Shaw & Brothers were unable to keep the factory profitable. The company failed in 1883, and tannery operations were taken over by a trustee of the company. In 1896 any remaining Shaw & Brothers properties that had not been sold off to pay debts were sold to The Great International Leather Company which began to close the factories and transport some of the machinery to Boston. When this happened many of the towns where the tanneries were located witnessed a drastic population drop as most residents either worked at the tannery or ran support businesses that relied on the tannery operations for income.

A photo of the Grand Lake Stream Tannery that was also built by Shaw & Brothers. It was the largest tannery the company built. This photo shows how the tannery’s chimney appeared in ca. 1914, long after a fire destroyed part of the tannery in 1887. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society.
A photo of the Grand Lake Stream Tannery that was also built by Shaw & Brothers. It was the largest tannery the company built. This photo shows how the tannery’s chimney appeared in ca. 1914, long after a fire destroyed part of the tannery in 1887. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society.

The Shaw & Brothers Tannery acquired by the Conservancy is thought to the best preserved tannery in Maine.  It includes remains of foundations, kilns, vats, waterways, and various tools and equipment. There is significant potential for future research on leather manufacturing and the impact of the tannery on the growth and decline of the town, as well as cross-border relations and the lives of the factory’s workers.

~Kelley Berliner, Eastern Field Representative

Learn More about the Shaw Tanneries in the 1890s

Read about another of our Maine archaeological Preserves: Waterside Shell Heap Preserve located on Frenchman’s Bay also in Maine

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