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Leather tanning the old way

Business: The days appeared numbered for the last major vegetable tannery in Australia


Ross Greenhalgh works on a hide. Photo by Amy Lewis

Leather tanning the old way
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On a hill in southern Victoria, Bruce Greenhalgh drives a forklift with a pallet of tanned hides to a storage shed. In another shed, his younger brother Ross uses small black tacks to affix the hairy side of a deer skin to a board, exposing its blue-coated backside. He slides the frame along an overhead track to nestle among the hundreds of others curing in the dry shed. A heater and dehumidifier in the building defy the moist winter air. Lining the inside walls are piles of cured hair-on hides from deer, foxes, cows, and kangaroos.

The Greenhalgh Tannery showroom down the hill features shelves stocked with leather goods like purses, shoes, and belts. Fluffy lambskin rugs, kangaroo leather, and half sides of cowhide sit in stacks on the floor. The classic earthy scent of tanned leather permeates the open room.

In the dry shed, Ross puts his finger in the large hole of a deer hide where a bullet came out, then hunts for the smaller hole where it entered. “People are using bigger cannons these days,” he says.

Bullets aren’t the only things leaving holes as they exit. When the Greenhalgh brothers retire, Australia will lose a piece of living history and the country’s last major tannery using environmentally friendly vegetable tanning. The high cost of the tanning method and the resulting higher price of leather have shrunk the number of tanners using the veg-tan method from hundreds in the region to just the Greenhalghs.

When Bruce and Ross started full time at the tannery after high school, the property was surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see. Today, sunlight glints off roofs of a nearby housing development under construction, and a road expansion project slows traffic onto Greenhalghs Road. The nearby city of Ballarat, almost a two-hour drive west of Melbourne, expects its population to grow by 60 percent in the next 20 years.

The brothers have stopped investing in employees and machinery even though their business is steady. “You can see the writing on the wall. Manufacturing is pretty dead in Australia,” says Ross.

His brother Bruce adds, “The business of being in business has become far more complicated.” Besides, after operating for five generations, the Greenhalghs’ tannery has no one in the family to continue running it. Bruce claims to be a “crop failure” because he never ­married, and Ross’ two adult children have chosen other professions.

Great-great-grandfather Ralph Greenhalgh moved to the Ballarat area soon after the 1851 Australian Gold Rush. He supported his family of at least 15 children by tanning hides for pioneers’ saddles, bridles, holsters, and shoes. One of his sons or grandsons built the brick-lined pits where Bruce and Ross suspend hundreds of hides for almost two months in black wattle bark “tea,” infusing the hides with tannins.

Black wattle, also known as black acacia or Acacia mearnsii, is endemic to southeastern Australia. The continent’s indigenous residents used every part of wattle trees for food, medicine, housing, and tools. Pioneers began using the bark’s tannins to leach the water ­molecules out of animal skins to preserve them and keep them supple. It’s the same method the Greenhalghs use today, with few alterations.

I love what I do. If you find something you’re happy doing, you don’t have to make a great deal of money.

Butchers send piles of heavily salted rawhides to the tannery, where they wait to be processed. Nothing grows in salt, Ross explains. The salt also speeds up the natural oxidizing process on machines the brothers use to slice, skin, shave, and cut. Rust is everywhere.

Ross Greenhalgh, 62, opens a circular door at the front of a huge metal drum perched on its side. Plump hides peek out of a pH-restoring ammonia bath. “We have a very scientific way of telling if a hide is done tanning after the tanning pits,” Ross says straight-faced. “We take a knife and make a slit in the edge of the hide. If it’s got a white line in the middle, it’s not tanned all the way through.”

Only about 10 percent of leather produced in tanneries today uses the three-month-long vegetable tanning method. The other 90 percent get the chrome, or chromium salt, method. It takes only three days of tumbling in a drum with a cocktail of chemicals to come out more pliable, but blue and with less of the classic leather smell for clothing, furniture, and car interiors. The Greenhalghs’ thicker vegetable tanned leather needs to be broken in, but it will develop a patina and won’t crack as it ages.

Bruce, 66, says when his creaking bones seize up, he’ll know it’s time to retire. He has a little house on the Murray River where the fishing is good: “You know what I mean. I throw the line out and go to sleep. The fish are pretty safe.”

The brothers say that increasing environmental regulations make it more costly to stay in business. When the tannery closes, Australia will lose a slice of its heritage. Another small business will be gone with only a street name, Greenhalghs Road, to remind us of the story.

Until then, Ross keeps tanning hides. “I love what I do. If you find something you’re happy doing, you don’t have to make a great deal of money. That’s not important.”

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