By Danna Burns-Shaw
When you think of Napa, California, of course you think of wine. The combination of diverse soil, climate and topography is the perfect recipe for producing light, fresh Sauvignon Blanc…rich, full-bodied Chardonnay… silky, seductive Pinot Noir…bold, spicy Zinfandel…ripe, velvety Merlot…and of course, their world-famous Cabernet Sauvignon! (Yes, I love Napa Valley wines – all varietals.)
There are nearly 500 vineyards in Napa County and neighboring Sonoma County is home to over 700, making the Napa Valley wine region the number one employer for both counties.
Downtown Napa is known for its late 1800s – early 1900s architecture; a riverfront that promenades shops and restaurants. But that riverfront was once the home to three very large leather tanneries, which consisted of 14 buildings and employed hundreds. For a century the largest employers in Napa County were the tanneries, from the late 1800s until the 1970s.
The countryside back in 1869 was abundant with thousands of grazing animals, and the Napa River was a transportation highway. Steamers frequented the river, loaded with hides and meat headed to the bustling city of San Francisco.
The Hide House legacy began along that river – water being the most crucial component for operating a leather tannery. The Napa River is the second longest/widest navigational river in the Golden State and the Napa Valley offered vast resources to source raw materials, such as tree barks for the vegetable tanning and salt for curing the hides.
Sometimes Luck is Believing You’re Lucky
Last spring, as I sat across the desk from Rob Deits, owner and president of The Hide House in Napa, I felt as though I was attending a history class from my all-time favorite teacher. Rob’s passion, enthusiasm and remarkable knowledge for leather and its rich history are beyond interesting.
To say Rob is upbeat is an understatement; his stories are captivating and tell the tale of his family and their long-time associations with the Napa County Tanners. Those tanners are the reason that he and his brother, Randy, own and operate successful businesses in Napa… long after the Napa Tanneries have perished. Rob operates The Hide House, and Randy, Napa Glove Company.
The Deits family acquired Napa Glove Company and The Hide House in a most curious and unusual way. Call it luck, or being in the right place at the right time –
Rob and Randy’s father, Earle, was certainly both.
In 1976, Earle Deits was a district manager for a large credit rating company. He was mid-career when he became embittered with the way he was being treated by corporate. Not sure what to do or where to go, he just kept doing his job.
One of his clients was Napa Glove and while on a sales visit, he noticed an antique clock in one of the company’s offices. Being a serious collector of old timepieces, Earle asked the owner if the clock was for sale and the answer was yes. When Earle returned a few days later to pay for the clock, he saw yet another collectible in the cutting room and once again asked the owner if the piece was for sale. “Everything’s for sale,” answered the owner. Earle went home and thought, maybe he should offer to buy the Napa Glove Company. So, after a meeting with his family, Earle bought Napa Glove, a company that had been making gloves since 1888.
When Earle gave the former owner a check, he gave Earle the keys to the front door and then hopped into a newly purchased RV…never to be seen again. Earle knew nothing about making gloves.
The next day, Earle called all the unsuspecting employees together and announced to them, “Hi, I’m your new boss.” Earle was able to take the company’s earnings from $250,000 to $400,000 in his first year; quite an accomplishment for a corporate guy with zero business experience.
Today, Napa Glove Company operates alongside The Hide House with Earle’s son, Randy overseeing the 130-year-old Napa-based company.
Acquiring The Hide House
One day in 1978, Earle was talking to one of his glove leather suppliers, Calnap Tanning; they had a small retail outlet called The Hide House that sold their rejects, overruns and off-color leathers, as well as a few finished goods such as jackets and purses.
Earle would often find small lots of leathers at a discounted price to use for various projects, so on that day he was dispirited to learn that Calnap was going to close The Hide House. They felt it was just too small to bother with as Calnap was growing exponentially.
Again, Earle went home enchanted with the potential of owning The Hide House. His first thought was perhaps his son Rob, having just finished college in San Francisco, could come home and run the small business. As it turned out, Rob and his father bought The Hide House business and inventory for $5,000 – borrowed on a 90-day note.
Rob had put himself through school working in a gourmet butcher shop as an apprentice butcher. Little did he know, one day, as the owner of The Hide House, he’d be selling millions of square feet of leather annually. Rob laughs and says, “I tell people I really do know cows inside and out,” and adds, “I sold the meat and now I sell the wrappers!”
Again (and not for the last time), fortune smiled on Rob. Shortly after acquiring The Hide House, Legallete Tanning, a competing tannery that also had a small retail store, transferred their accounts to Calnap. Rob bought Legallete’s customer list, sent out a mailing and “that one event,” according to Rob, “rocketed their sales to new levels.” Many of those accounts still buy from Rob today.
The stars aligned yet again for Rob and his small, but growing company in 1986. It was at about that time it became clear to Rob that his two neighbors, Calnap and Sawyer’s of Napa, were not long for this world. He had a sense that the tanning world was changing… and he was right. Since his family had some property not far away, Rob decided to build a brand new warehouse with offices. Two days after he moved his operation, the rains began and “Tannery Row,” including his former location, was all under water. Rob remembers seeing 55-gallon steel drums that once held leather dye floating down the middle of the street.
That was the final blow to the Napa tanneries, and the lucky Deits brothers, in their new “high-and-dry” location, would have to source their leathers elsewhere.
Any longstanding business hits a few lucky breaks and also has to overcome devastating losses. The past few years Napa County has had to overcome two catastrophic disasters: a 6.0 earthquake, which caused a billion dollars in damage to the area; and the devastating Santa Rosa/Napa fires that sadly claimed many lives and properties.
On August 24, 2014, a magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck around 3:20 am; the strongest earthquake event to hit Northern California since 1989. If the earthquake would have been during working hours, hundreds of more casualties would have occurred.
As soon as the sun rose the next morning, Rob rushed to his shop to assess the damage. He knew the minute he tried to open the door that his company was deeply affected; the door would not open because of all the debris. Imagine mountains of collapsed shelves and structures, and the millions of feet of leather they held, now in heaps over 10 feet tall.
All of their computers were smashed and unusable, but as devastating as the damage was, Rob was overcome with gratitude that no one was in the shop when the disaster occurred. Rob and Randy were also grateful that just prior to the earthquake, they had taken out the old building that used to house the glove shop, as it was not built to withstand earthquakes.
Last October, Rob was in Europe for a leather show. When he got back into US cell service range, his phone was blown up with messages asking if he was okay and if he had lost everything in the devastating fires. Rob didn’t even know that the fires had reached Napa Valley. To his dismay, his home and all of its contents were one of the thousands of homes consumed during the devastating fires of 2017.
But in positive, upbeat-Rob style, he affirmed during our interview that he is back on his feet and grateful his business was only affected by the heavy smoke which paralyzed the area for weeks.
The Hide House remains stocked with over 2500 different quality leathers and they pride themselves on shipping within 48 hours. With their unbelievable selection of leather offerings, they serve a vast array of businesses and industries.
Rob jokingly chuckled saying he and his team give a prayer every morning… thanking God for equestrians and motorcycle enthusiasts.
They also market leather to the garment and apparel industries, as well as interior design and hospitality.
Hide House leathers are used not only by suppliers to the equestrian and motorcycle industries, but they also sell leather to producers of handbags, footwear, high-end furniture, automobiles, yachts, aircraft and orthopedics – hobbyists too – to name a few.
“There is great demand for leather,” states Rob, “and at The Hide House we pride ourselves in carrying thousands of selections of leather…no customer is too small or too large for us to service!”
Napa’s Pioneer Tanneries
The Sawyer Tanning Company
The Sawyer Tanning Company of Napa, California, was established in 1869. The business was founded by F.A. Sawyer. He was joined by his father, B.F. Sawyer, a tanner from New Hampshire, in 1870 and in 1871, by Emanuel Manasse, also a tanner and a son of a tanner.
In the mid-1800s, seven wharfs were constructed on the Napa waterfront, along with lumberyards and warehouses. Steamships carried both agricultural and industrial products, sometimes transporting entire flocks and herds of livestock to the docks of the bustling Napa River.
On F.A. Sawyer’s first visit to Napa, he noticed that local butchers were discarding sheep pelts with wool still on them. He purchased a pile of pelts and started a wool-pulling business on the banks of the Napa River, aided by Chinese laborers. It didn’t take long before he was curing hides, pickling them in brine and shipping them back East.
So in 1870, a father and son joined together and the legacy of Sawyer Tanning Company began on South Coombs Street. A year later, F.A. Sawyer invited Emmanuel Manasse, a German immigrant running a successful tannery in the Mission District of San Francisco, to move with his wife to Napa and work for him. Manasse joined the company and rapidly developed new methods for tanning sheepskin and buckskin.
In the early part of the 1900s, the tannery was buying deerskins for $.38 a pound in the summer, $.28 in the winter. Wet, salted cowhides cost $.09 a pound and horse hides cost $2.00.
By 1909, Sawyer Tannery had developed Napatan Waterproof Leather and Napa Patent Leather. Because of his great contribution in developing tanning processes, Emanuel Manasse became a co-owner of the business.
When the supply demands of World War I caused a shortage of chemicals, Sawyer sent engineers and miners into the hills and found chrome ore from which they made dichromate of soda, the chemical essential to tanning.
By 1920, Sawyer was the first tannery west of Chicago to produce patent leather and in 1927, it developed chromed tan leather, the ideal material for building baseball, softball and welding gloves. The uses for chrome tan leather expanded and the tannery began to flourish.
The big whistle on top of the water tower at the Sawyer Tannery was one of life’s regulators. It blew every day of the year at 6 am, 12 noon and 4 pm.
During the depression years in Napa, a man could still make a living without charity at Sawyer Tannery. It continued to thrive, turning out woolen lining for coats and all kinds of gloves. But, a few decades later all of that began to change as corporations were allowed by “free trade” to move their operations out of the country.
In 1983, Napa factories started shutting down one by one, and Sawyer Tannery gave final notice to its employees in 1990. The United States was evolving out of manufacturing, and production was being moved south of the border to Mexico and South America, and eventually overseas to Eastern Europe and China. Scores of workers were displaced and young high school graduates lost the opportunity to work at manufacturing jobs, not only in Napa, but across the United States.
Calnap Tanning Company
Calnap Tanning Company was founded in 1945 by Irving Manasse, grandson of Emanuel Manasse. Emanuel became a partner of Sawyer Tanning Company in 1871; he rapidly developed new methods for tanning sheepskin and buckskin. Emanuel’s son, Henry Manasee, opened a shoe store in downtown Napa. Emanuel’s other sons, Ed and August, began working at Sawyers. Ed stayed on, while August founded a tannery in Berkeley, Manasee Block Tannery. Ed had four sons that all worked at Sawyers. In 1944, Ed died and one of his sons, Irving, decided to branch out on his own; he left Sawyer Tanning Company and opened Calnap Tanning Company right next door.
At this time, between 80% and 90% of the leather was tanned in the US. So during both World Wars and the Depression, the Napa tanneries prospered due to the constant demand for military and domestic leather products.
Napa possessed all the necessary elements of good leather crafting: soft water, fur bearing animals and tanning materials from tree bark. Both tanneries remained stable until the late 1970s, when three international events took place: Russia was at war with Afghanistan, the Ayatollah took over Iran (hence an embargo on African hair sheep) and Turkey chose not to export raw sheepskins. These countries supplied the fine raw material used to produce lightweight leathers.
Furthermore, the efforts of the EPA caused many tanneries to close rather than invest in compliance measures.