By Nick Pernokas
Terry Kennemer would remind you of a chef. He can talk about intricate recipes and what they produce off the top of his head. Like many good chefs, he won’t tell you all of the ingredients. However, it’s not a gourmet meal that he’s enthusiastically describing, but rather a signature piece of leather. Terry is the head tanner for Tennessee Tanning Company. A second generation employee, he’s worked there for 42 years. To understand Terry’s leather, you have to know about the tannery.
The Soesby family started The Appalachian Tanning Company in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in 1946. They made leather jackets from horsehides and sheepskin. Appalachian Tanning made their own leather for the jackets, as well as having their own sewing facility on site. After a reorganization between partners, the company was renamed Tennessee Tanning in 1963.
Tullahoma happened to be the ball capital of the world in the 1930s -1950s. Both Wilson Sporting Goods and Worth Sports had sporting goods factories there. Tennessee Tanning saw that there was an expanding market in the sports industry and they began to experiment with alum tanned leather for covering baseballs. When they began making ball leather, almost all baseballs were covered with horsehide. The horsehide market dwindled in the United States making the leather harder to get. In 1970, Tennessee Tanning worked with Rawlings Sporting Goods Company to develop a process to tan cowhides that would be suitable for baseballs. By the mid-1970s, Tennessee Tanning still made a little horsehide baseball leather, but the majority was cowhide for Major League balls.
Tennessee Tanning has a process for tanning baseball leather that is unique to them, and it’s one that has evolved as availability of materials and EPA regulations have changed.
“It was developed with alum and other ingredients. It’s a complex tan with some little subtle nuances that just aren’t commonly used. We figured out how to make them work,” says Terry.
The leather has to conform to Major League Baseball specifications concerning tensile strength, stretch and stitch tear strength. It has to be able to be cased and sewn over the ball wet. Tennessee Tanning is regarded as having the “whitest of the white” baseball leather.
“We call the finished baseballs our little pearls.”
The tannery made leather for sporting goods companies such as Spalding and MacGregor, but in 1972 they began covering the Rawlings baseballs exclusively. When the leather is finished, it is shipped to Rawlings’ ball plant in Costa Rica.
Eventually Rawlings Sporting Goods bought Tennessee Tanning. Realizing that Tennessee Tanning was a successful venture, they left it to continue operating as it always had. The business takes up half a city block and employs 55 people.
“As far as I’m concerned, Rawlings Sporting Goods is the best thing that ever happened to Tennessee Tanning Company,” says Terry.
Today, Tennessee Tanning also makes laces for the high-end Rawlings baseball gloves. Some of this is alum tanned and is classic Indian Tan latigo. The other is a complex chrome and alum tan, which is available in various colors. Although the tannery has also made some baseball glove leather, the work that they already have has kept them from expanding into this market as well.
“We’re not a big enough factory to produce all the glove leather they would need,” says Terry. “We would have to be 10 times larger to supply that leather in any real amount.”
Tennessee Tanning does produce leather other than baseball leather. This includes saddlery latigo and leather for moccasin soles, bags and rawhide. On average, they ship 2000 sides of these products a week. Though they do not consider themselves to be a custom tannery, they will help their good customers out if they need something special. Terry takes pride in the flexibility of the company at trying innovative ideas from bright new people. He has been developing some unique leathers with cutting-edge technologies. An example of this is “double tanned leather, which is almost a hybrid between the baseball leather and a common latigo.”
“We try to stick with the basics here. It gives you a good, solid foundation; then you can bring some of this other stuff in a little at a time, and you can make sure your leather is going to be the quality that you want it to be. The bottom line is that leather is a raw material for someone else. You have to give them what they want.”
One of the difficulties that a tanner runs into is the customer may want something that doesn’t really fit the product that he’s going to make from it. If a tanner really knows his leather, he can steer his customer towards what he really needs.
Terry remembers a customer who was breaking a lot of needles during his production with the leather he was using. Terry realized that the customer needed a leather with the same characteristics on the outside, but a more mellow interior. There were lubricant systems that Terry was able to use to make the type of leather that made his customer’s production easier. Sometimes, neither the customer nor the salesman really knows which leather is needed past the superficial appearance.
“You have to have a good relationship and understanding between marketing, sales and the tanner to tie it all together.”
Two types of leather may be tanned virtually the same and then change dramatically from the steps that are taken after they come out of the drum.
“You have to know how to manipulate the fiber structure, what not to do for this, knowing what to do for that. If you want to make a pebbled grain, you have to make it a little loose. For other tans, you might make it tight so you have a good break and you don’t have a lot of wrinkles when you fold it in.”
Tennessee Tanning sells leather in small amounts, but you save handling charges if you buy at least five sides. To find out what they can cook up for you, call (931) 455-3441 or go to tntanningcompany.com.
Tennessee Tanning Company
915 NW Atlantic Street
Tullahoma, TN 37388
One thought on “Tennessee Tanning Company: Staying Ahead of the Ball”
Great article! “Soesby” should be “Soesbe.”
Jeff Richardson (grandson of TTC founder Lee Soesbe)