In addition to its finished products, the Horween tannery is a masterpiece in and of itself. Like all masterpieces, it can be read different ways. During our tour, our photographer noticed compositions, while the writer keyed in on chaos.
The basement of the Horween tannery is covered in a patina (“grime,” Nick calls it), a black, thin sludge that stains walls, floors, the sides of barrels—everything. The gritty atmosphere is occasionally, and violently, contrasted by a burst of color: a metal hangar door painted lipstick red, a desk that's day-glo green, the orange framework of the tanning vats, and enormous mixers oranger still.
Nick walks us past bales of raw hides in the stiffly aromatic hide house; past the pickling vats with steamboat paddles; past the gridwork of veg-tan vats and their wooden racks floating above bubbling brown water; past the massive mixers that look like the spinning backs of cement trucks magnified several times (inside which massive amounts of lime feast on the fat and hair and barnyard detritus on the hides); past the enormous churning wooden barrels that dump water gushing toward the drains on the tannery floor; past a makeshift work station, where a gray feral cat—one ear half-bitten off—rests on an ancient office chair.
And that's just one floor.
The Horween tannery is to me what the Wonka chocolate factory was to Charlie. I feel punch-drunk from the sensory overload as we go from floor to floor, up and down. (Nick says if he were to start a tannery today, it would be streamlined across one floor, but the upstairs-downstairs inefficiencies of Horween only further endear the place to me.)
We tour the entire cordovan process, from the pickling and veg-tan vats to machines that punch, roll, and polish the shells. (These roaring, clanging contraptions are manned by workers who have precise movements and all 10 fingers.) At every point in between, we find piles of wet blue leather, and equally drenched black hides, soaked and slapping against each other, piled by a man with a black-spattered face. At one corner Nick pauses to watch green foam rush out onto the floor into a drain; he smiles and comments that somewhere in the tannery, workers are dyeing hides. Here we have a pile of NFL leather, entire cow sides brown and goose-pimpled. Over there, a stack of crimson Cavalier leather with its underside as rich as red velvet cake.
If Nick did build that single-floor, optimized tannery, I wouldn’t want to tour it more than once. I’m not interested in state-of-the-art efficiency. Instead of Horween’s black slate boards and their chalk-drawn codes, the single-floor tannery would have guys in lab coats walking around with iPads, monitoring specific chemical reactions as they occurred inside each vat. Horween is definitely more of a season-to-taste operation.
I’m not saying that Horween runs anything less than world-class production, only that the place has soul to spare. Nick tells me that they add a certain agent to horse butts early on, to prepare the leather fibers for the next step—“prepare” as in “coax” or “nudge,” as if the fibers are not only alive but open to ideas. At one station, a gentleman creases shells of cordovan with his hands to gauge quality, at times taking his eyes off the leather so to get a better feel.
I live four blocks from Horween.
One night, when taking an Uber home on the highway, I watch the industrial corridor slide by east of I-90: Morton Salt piles; metal scrap heaps; the Cortland drawbridge; then a smokestack. Finally, under a massive red-neon SELF STORAGE sign, there sits an unmarked, unassuming five-floor brick building at the intersection of Elston, Ashland, and Armitage.
I remember Skip Horween telling me that when he walks those five floors, he can hear the footsteps of his father and grandfather. I have an idea of what he means.