A worker’s view of tannery work in Rosman
by Rob Neufeld
Haskell Luker was 11 when the Flood of 1916 caused his dad, Americus Alfred Luker, to leave the farm where he worked and take a job with an acid (tannin) plant in Pisgah Forest.
“Daddy was going down there to make big money—you know how they talk,” Luker explained to Rowell Bosse in a 1991 interview. (The recorded interview is held by Transylvania County Library’s North Carolina Room, which is named after Bosse.)
“Well,” Luker continued, “we went down there and stayed about a month,” and then the company shut the plant down “because the feller that done the oilin’ down in the engine room got killed one morning about 3 o’clock. And after he got killed, why the people wouldn’t work of a night. They claimed they could see him down there.”
The engine of profit
There are a lot of ghost stories about tragic lovers and vengeful victims in our folklore, but they barely rise above sensational value in the historical record. However, the lingering ghosts of early 20th century industrialism in our region resonate with significance.
The tycoons who came to these mountains when its natural resources opened up to them exhibited remarkable energy and ingenuity; as well as various degrees of enlightenment. In all cases, cheap labor was one of the attractions, and profit a necessary bottom line.
Joseph Silversteen came to Toxaway and established the Toxaway Tanning Company in 1902. Behind him was his parents’ escape to Pennsylvania from Russian pogroms; and his entry, as a young apprentice, into the stench-filled industry of tanning.
By age 23, he was ready for entrepreneurship. He and new wife, Elizabeth, moved to Transylvania County, which they made their adopted home, benefitting it in numerous ways.
Dateline: 20 years later. “Transylvania’s great industries reveal real American story,” the Brevard News trumpeted.
“The story of industry in the Brevard section is closely linked with the progress of four large plants by Joseph S. Silversteen, these plants being the Transylvania Tanning company, at Brevard; the Toxaway tanning company, Rosman extract company, and the Gloucester Lumber company, all located in Rosman.”
The Rosman companies employed about 600 people. The tanners produced 500 hides a day; the lumber people, 30,000 board feet; and the extractors, 175 barrels.
Bottom of the ladder
“I went out there at that old acid plant (the tannin extract company) and asked for a job and (the boss) told me, ‘Well, I'll let you work if I get permission from your daddy,’” Luker said about his first job interview after dropping out of school at age 15.
He got hired as water boy, making the rounds delivering drinking water to the blacksmith shop; the pan house, where the syrupy extract was finished; the boilerplate room, where wood was boiled; the chipper shed; and the engine room.
One day, a boy who oversaw the boiling was killed. “One of them tanks they call the boilerplate...well the bottom blowed off it and killed that boy. And that scared everybody and they wouldn’t work in there. Boss asked me if I’d work in there. Well, I’d been around there a whole lot you know and seed what they done and everything, and I told him I didn’t mind it.”
Despite the dangers, the new job involved sitting around half the time doing nothing except making sure the pressure valves didn’t pop. Plus, it was warm in the winter.
The lighting was very poor, supplied by two home-made lamps powered by the plant’s steam engine. Particulates gummed up the drain in the tank, causing explosions. Two more workers died, blown through the roof after climbing the tanks.
The turnover in the extract company was high, as men from South Carolina had enough after about three paydays, Luker said. Pay was in scrip, which could be exchanged for 75% of its value in cash.
Luker, who worked 12 hours a day when he was young, stuck with the company for 25 years, taking a break for the Navy, and stopping when the operation ended for lack of chestnut wood.
He then worked many more years at a tire company in Pickens, until he was 65, at which point he said he “wasn’t going to do a thang in the world but hunt and fish.”
The flip side of Luker’s work life had been his leisure time in the woods with his buddies.
“A man can go right here to the river and catch fish any time,” he said about the old days. “But when they’d wash out all those tubs up at the acid plant, the river would be just as red as it could be where they’d washed that, and (it all) settled in the bottom there.”
“Everything went in the river,” Luker noted—dead animals; trash; outhouse waste.
In 1905, North Carolina passed a law prohibiting tanneries or tannic acid plants from discharging waste into Richland Creek in Haywood County. But it took a long time for protections to become real in any place; and residents often felt unaffected, calling themselves “stout” and going on with their activities, relatively free to roam.
“Ever since I was big enough to carry a gun, I’ve hunted and fished,” Luker said. He and his friends got a quarter for every possum skin, which they invested back in shells. He hunted coons with his dad, following their dogs.
Sometimes, they got wind of society passing them by.
“It’s about like the joke they told on a feller up there on East Fork about the motorcycle,” Luker related. The man “was out on the porch and heard the motorcycle coming up the road there. Said he ran into the house and got his gun, came back out...Said he hauled off and shot at it. They asked, ‘Did you kill it?’ ‘No, but I made it turn that man loose.’”
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler
Toxaway Tanning Company employees, 1920s. 1. Calvin Galloway. 2. E.D. Randolph. 3. Will Jackson. 4. Unknown. 5. Archie Rogers. 6. Roy Watkins. 7. Garfield Duncan. 8. Robert Holden. 9. Unknown. 10. Wilborn Galloway. 11. Paul Rogers. 12. Elmer White. 13. Oscar Barrette. 14. Calop Murphy. 15. Will Mosley. 16. Daddy Harry Scott. 17. Unknown. 18. Lueller Powell. 19. Unknown. 20. Bill Jackson. 21. Burnice Owens. 22. Weldon Morgan. 23. Fred Stroupe. 24. Jorden Whitmire. 25. Anderson Revis. 26. C.L. Cantt. 27. Dee Morgan. 28. Carl Hednrix. 29. George Hendrix. 30. Coy Whitmire. 31. Lee Morgan. 32. Dar. Crowe. 33. Elmer McClain. (Photo courtesy of the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library)