How can anyone really know where they’re going unless they know where they’ve been? Last week, for the third time in as many years, over 900 students from more than 15 different school districts visited the 1866 Farm Days program at the Troy farm museum to find out. As a pre-requisite, all participating schools and students get a taste for what they will see and learn about at this program by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy, which describes upstate New York farm life in the mid 1800s from the viewpoint of the young, 8-year-old main character, Almanzo Wilder.
While at this event, students and teachers benefit from hands-on demonstrations of the same old-time skills as talked about in the book, including blacksmithing, woodworking, rope-making, general agriculture, sewing/weaving, cooking and baking, working with livestock, hide tanning, trapping and many other topics.
While celebrating the rich agricultural heritage showcased in the book that led to a strong and self-sufficient early American nation, participating students learn about the value of hard work and the importance of connection to the land and its resources that sustained the Wilder family in the 1800s, the same as it does for all people in today’s world.
Along these lines, Education Coordinator Dan Rhodes (in the photo) facilitates a hide tanning activity where students physically experience how much work it really took to tan leather by hand in the days when machinery and electricity were completely absent from the process.
Despite the hard labor and often long processing time associated with tanning high-quality leather, Bradford County and northern Pennsylvania in general was one of the most profitable and productive areas in the nation for making leather. In fact, until the mid to late 20th century, tanneries used to dot the landscape in this region more commonly than Wal-Mart superstores today!
The reason for this early boom in the leather making industry, once again, goes hand in hand with the valuable natural resources the land provides us here. Bradford County and northern Pennsylvania in general have abundant streams needed to rinse animal skins at certain points of the process; and provide water for making the all-important ingredient necessary to turn raw animal skins into leather — tannic acid. This acid came from the bark of abundant hemlock, chestnut oak, red oak and American chestnut trees growing all over the state. Hemlock by far though, was the most common, high acid content tree growing in Pennsylvania, and because of this valuable attribute and others, was officially named Pennsylvania’s state tree.
The cheap cost of leather tanned in China and other countries with toxic chemicals such as chromium, long ago sealed the fate of the leather tanning industry here in Pennsylvania. Hopefully people will start to realize that cheaper isn’t always better when it comes to the quality of the product they are purchasing, or its’ impact on the environment.
Look for the Troy Farm Museum’s next event, or better yet, don’t wait. Make a visit to the museum today for a look back. It just might help you look ahead.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd .in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.