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    An Introduction to the Hide Industry

    While researching the hide industry to find out what became of all those buffalo hides shipped to market, this article was found in Shoe and Leather Reporter August 21, 1890. I thought it was interesting enough to reprint along with a few notes regarding some of the major individuals mentioned. The endnotes contain some interesting and entertaining information.


    A Kansas City contributor to The St. Louis Globe Democrat furnished to that journal an interesting article on this subject:

    Shortly after the war there came to this city from Canada, Benjamin McLean,1 who had been a tanner in that country and Mayor of his city. His place of business having been burned down, he determined to leave the tanning industry and come West to commence that of hide buying, which was, as it is to-day and is likely to be for all time, one of the most important of all industries, as every man and animal of burden used the product of hide. Mr. McLean opened a warehouse at the corner of Thirteenth street and Grand avenue, where he did a thriving business in hides and furs, the latter of which were plentiful in this country then, and for which there was a ready demand throughout the East and in Europe. Among other things which Mr. McLean handled was a number of buffalo hides, which were sold as furs for robes to the dressers of New York and elsewhere. Mr. McLean’s experience as a tanner induced him to believe that he could turn these hides to better account, namely, leather, and he made a small consignment to a tanner, with instructions to work them and report results to Kansas City. The tanner’s report, while not what one might call satisfactory, was at least encouraging, and it was believed that with a slightly different treatment at the vats a very good quality of leather might be obtained. Mr. McLean immediately wrote all his customers, advising them of the experiment, and solicited orders for them. The idea pleased the tanners, for native cow hides were high in price, while these buffalo hides could be obtained at such a low figure as to induce them to make a trial, and as a consequence their shipments from McLean’s warehouse became an important factor. These were actually the first large shipments of buffalo hides that had ever been made, and the report of the undertaking spread over the trade fast. The example set by McLean’s customers encouraged others to go into business, and soon Askew Bros.2 and Joseph Dubois,3 of this city, and Lobenstein & Co., of Leavenworth – who, with Mr. McLean, were then the great hide buyers of the United States – entered the field and ran prices up on McLean so as to render the trade unprofitable at least. These buyers had the coign of vantage, for Kansas City was the terminus of the only two roads draining the Western country over which the buffalo roamed. Mr. McLean was the heaviest buyer by all odds, having a large tanning trade to cater to, but Askew Bros. and Lobenstein were able to handle a great many hides, which they did, with the consequence stated – that of running up the price on each other in their endeavor to secure the balance of trade.

    There was only one course left for the buyers to pursue in order to avoid losses, and that was to form a pool and go into the business of buying with a standard of prices which would give them a fair profit (which would now be deemed little short of enormous), and at the same time set such a price as would encourage the hunter to make large shipments. As a result, the three firms consolidated for the carrying on of this business in buffalo hides, and a document was drawn up and signed, which was beyond a doubt the actual death warrant of the great American bison. It called for the hide of every animal that should be shot along the two great Western railroads. It made a price which set to work the rifles of an army of hunters, and it bound the signers to exert every power to hold the market to the exclusion of all new comers. Bonds were put up and the signers held to their word.

    The result was astounding. All the time this parley was going on, orders for bison hides were coming from numerous tanners, but no effort was made to boom the market, the three firms keeping their council in hopes of final arrangement being made, and as soon as this was done, hunters by the score were advanced money to equip themselves and start out on hunting expeditions, which they did promptly, for the bison was right at their doors, and the work was easy and the money sure. A band of hunters would start out in the morning, shoot everything in sight, and then their trail would be taken up by their assistants, the hides taken off and carried to the railroad to be transported to the warehouses of the three firms. The prices paid these men by the combines were $3 for a full-grown bull, $1.75 for a half-grown bull, $1.50 for a full-grown cow. 50c. for a yearling. Within six months from the signing of this contract the business in bison hides had grown to be something enormous, and $500,000 was tied up in their hides at one time. The supply had proven greater than the demand, for it must be remembered at these orders from tanners were only trial orders, and consisted of only two or three car-load shipments, while the hunters met with even greater success than the consolidated firms had bargained for. This sum covered the carcasses of a million buffalo, for, in innumerable instances, the hides of fallen animals were discarded by reason of their being cut or torn in such a way as to render them unmerchantable, while many thousand yearlings and cows were ignored as not worth skinning for the price allowed for their hides. This instance of the slaughter of a million animals is astounding when one considers the short space of time in which it was executed. A million buffaloes means a vast number of herds, and it requires some meditation to realize the enormity of their bulk and the importance so much animal food would make in this date. Nor did the slaughter cease here, for another six months and yet another six months rolled round with like results.

    Tanning takes time, and it was not until a year after Mr. McLean’s first shipment that these hides came out of soak, and the buyers awoke one fine morning to find half a million dollars’ worth of buffalo hides on their hands for which there was no market. The best tanners of the country who had handled the buffalo hides sent forth the fact that as an article of usefulness the buffalo hide was a failure. The situation was alarming, for the hunters were out in full force, and there was but one thing to do, namely, shut off the hunters, or least reduce the price to such a figure as to make the business unprofitable. This was done, but the question arose, “What was to become of the hides already on their hands.”

    Here Mr. McLean’s extensive knowledge of tanning came to the rescue, and some were sent to Liverpool, some to Havre, some to Amsterdam and some went even to the classic city of Athens in search of a buyer. The venture was not without success, for the cheapness and the faith of the foreign tanners in their prowess to tan found buyers at prices which were by no means unsatisfactory. Most of the hides sent abroad were made into shoes for the British and German Armies. This trade, however, was not large enough to consume anywhere near what the consolidated firms had to offer, and hopes for gain were almost gone, when like a flash came the news that Shaw Bros. & Cassils, of Montreal, Schultz, Southwick & Co., of New York city, and a Cincinnati firm had discovered some method whereby a satisfactory grade of leather could be obtained. On these parties the hide buyers quickly unloaded, much to their relief. The lesson taught by Mr. McLean and his partners in the sudden stoppage of their first demand was not lost, and it was decided to stop advancing the hunters money, and to take only such hides as were wanted. This had the effect of greatly reducing the slaughter, but by this time the immense herd had been greatly depleted, and the straggling bunches were wantonly shot down, while wending their way West to safety, whenever they encountered, as they did, men whose sole ambition seemed to be to exterminate the race, leaving their carcasses food for buzzards and their bones to bleach in the sun, a reminder of their one-time importance. Shaw Bros. and Cassils and Schultz, Southwick & Co. used their product for collar leather and such purposes, while the Cincinnati people turned it into mail pouches for the United States mail service, for which they had a large contract with the Government.

    Some few weeks after their first buffalo hides came out of soak, Grant came into power, and one of his appointments was Marshall Jewell as Postmaster General. Jewell was a tanner by trade and as soon as he saw the new mail pouches he refused to accept any more on the ground that the leather of which they were made did not come up to the specifications of the contract, it being soft and spongy. This cut off the Cincinnati trade, which was heavy, but the blow was not felt seriously by the hide buyers, for the supply was small and no one was sorry for it. Native cow hides were fast coming down in price so as to render the tanning of buffalo hides, even by the improved way used by Montreal and New York people, unprofitable, in view of the fact that the leather had to be sold at so much lower price than that for native cattle. To-day in a corner of the warehouse of the Cincinnati firm stands a pile of sides and bellies of “the last of the buffalo,” rejected by man, a sad and touching reminder of a once great race, as impressive as it is expressive.

    Almost every one of these hides passed under the eyes of R.H. McCartney, who is and has been for twenty years the superintendent of the hide house of Benj. McLean & Co.; almost every dollar paid for them went through his fingers. Askew Bros. went out of the hide business with the death of the buffalo, and today are extensive leather dealers and saddlers in this city. Lobenstein remained in the hide business until six years ago, when he retired. Mr. McLean, who expired so suddenly at Minnetonka a year ago this month, remained in the business up to eight years ago, when his son-in-law, F.E. Tyler, took it. From a little place on Thirteenth and Grand avenue, with limited, but at that time good trade, they have grown to be the largest dealers in hides in the United States, if not the world, having sixteen branch houses through-out the West, innumerable traveling men and a seven-story house in New York, with a name known the world over wherever a hide is tanned, all as the results of the great start which was had from the now, to all intents and purposes, extinct great American buffalo. In those days, the same house did a big business in deer, bear, wolf and fox hides, but with their rapidly decreasing scarcity, few hides of this character are handled. The hide of the silver gray wolf was very valuable, and now commands an extravagant price. It is of a beautiful tint, and is used almost entirely in trimming ladies’ high-priced cloaks. In fact, it is so expensive that very little is sold in this country, the largest exports being to Russia, where it is fashionable among the ladies of the nobility.



    1 “Hides and Pelts and Leather and Findings – Dealers in hides and pelts: B. McLean & Co., M. Lyon & Co., Smith, Biggs & Co., M. Hirsch & Sons, John Nelson, and Oberne, Hosick & Co.

    2 “Leather and Findings are handled by Askew Brothers, A. Brandenburg & Co., M. Hirsch & Sons, Frank B. Lewis, and the Merriam &Robertson Saddlery Company. Of these houses, that of the Askew Brothers is the most important. The Merriam & Robertson Saddlery Company also does an extensive business.”

    3 “J.N. Dubois, a prominent hide buyer of Kansas City, told me at Buffalo, on the Kansas Pacific railroad, in 1874, that during ten months of that year 18,000 hides per day were marketed, with 500 outfits in the field, making thirty-six buffalo killed per day by each outfit.” This statement regarding J.N. Dubois was made by A. S. Burgher, who himself claimed; “We always aimed to kill all the bulls, as their hides were worth a dollar more than those of the cows, the average value of a bull hide in 1875 being $2.15. Forty bull hides made a good load. It cost us seven cents for ammunition every shot we fired, and when I say that I kept an account until I had used $2,200 worth of ammunition in killing 5,000 buffalo and other game, my readers may be incredulous.”

    3 Hunting Buffalo on the Great Plains, A.S. Burgher, Pioneer History of Custer County, and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska, Solomon D. Butcher and Ephraim S. Finch, Broken Bow, Nebraska, The Merchants Publishing Co., Denver, Colorado, 1901, Page 86

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