It was as if a meteor had struck the tanning industry. For more than a century, leather production had been the great engine that powered the regional economy of upstate New York. And then, almost overnight, it seemed, the tanneries were gone, as one shop after another fell in the 1980s to global competition and strict new environmental regulations. Gloversville — once the glove-making capital of the world — sank into a deep depression, perilously close to extinction itself.
In the decades since, the survivors of the cataclysm have struggled to clean up and rebuild. True to form, in commerce as in nature, small mammals emerged on a landscape devoid of dinosaurs, and today, at least a few of them are thriving.
“I don’t think anyone is looking to bring back the tanning industry,” says Gloversville Mayor Dayton King. “But Gloversville and Fulton County are definitely coming back.”
The story of Gloversville is the story of small manufacturing communities across America, dealt near-fatal blows by the offshoring of jobs to markets in developing nations with cheap labor and lax environmental controls. Ironically, just as some American manufacturing regions are staging modest comebacks, those early offshore markets are facing their own Gloversville moments, squeezed by competition from other countries and growing environmental regulation at home.
The Hazaribagh district of Dhaka, where about 90 percent of Bangladesh’s leather is produced, is a prime example. Like their Gloversville counterparts decades ago, Hazaribagh tanners face growing competition and government orders to stop polluting local waterways or cease operations entirely. How long that transition might take is an open question, but once the tanneries are gone from Hazaribagh, the Bangladeshi government will have a monumental cleanup — far worse, to be sure, but not so different from what federal and state authorities found in New York. The parallels between Gloversville then and Hazaribagh now are more than ironic or coincidental; they are instructive.
“Growing up in a leather town was exciting. We were the leather capital of the world,” says Mark Kilmer, president and CEO of the Fulton Montgomery County Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The survivors of the business have had to think out of the box and reinvent themselves and become more specialized.”
At the dawn of the 20th century, Gloversville — named for its glove-making industry — was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in America. Whether that is truth or legend, one thing is certain: tanning and glove making made many families very wealthy and employed the vast majority of the town’s work force. About 90 percent of the gloves sold in America between 1880 and 1950 were made in Gloversville, which by some estimates had more than 100 leather and glove companies at its peak.
The tanneries turned out supple leather for glove makers, and back in the day before the Environmental Protection Agency, they pumped their wastes, chemicals, and filthy water straight into Cayadutta Creek at the rate of 2 million gallons a day. Stories abound of the river changing color with the dyes and foaming up into sudsy crests 10 feet high.
A young Neil Sheehan described the Cayadutta in a 1964 New York Times article as “thoroughly poisoned with sewage and household detergents and with animal grease, flesh, hair, dyes, and chemicals from its tanneries.” Sheehan’s reportage, seen through the lens of history, is eerily prescient. He tagged Gloversville as “an example of the man-made water pollution” that the state’s $1.7 billion Pure Water Program was designed to combat, and lamented that but for the contamination, a drought-stricken upstate New York would have plenty of water to drink.
The final blow for Gloversville’s tanneries came with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and subsequent state and local laws that ultimately required industries to have their own effluent treatment systems. Most tanners, already losing business to cheaper suppliers overseas, saw no reason to spend a million dollars or more for a wastewater treatment system. Others borrowed heavily to finance the equipment, only to bleed out slowly.
“That was pretty much the definitive line in the history of tanning in the county,” says Matthew Smrtic, owner of both Sunderland Leathers, a leather buyer, and the Colonial Tanning Corporation, one of the county’s few remaining tanneries.
Gloversville lost more than a third of its residents, shrinking from a peak population of 23,634 at the 1950 Census to just 15,665 people in 2010. The glove-making industry was the first to go, its business siphoned off by factories in Asia. The tanneries followed, and by the 1990s unemployment was as high as 13.5 percent. The official unemployment rate has come down to an average of 5.7 percent in 2016. But locals say the rate doesn’t tell the whole story; many people have aged out of the workforce or stopped looking for jobs. About 24 percent of the town’s families were living in poverty in 2010, according to New York state demographic data.
Smrtic’s father-in-law, a longtime Gloversville tanner, was one of the survivors. He installed treatment systems, scaled back during the hard times that followed, and kept operating the tannery, which Smrtic and his wife now own. Smrtic weathered choppy economies in the 1990s and early 2000s by identifying and successfully exploiting a niche market for high-quality American deer and bison skins. Sunderland Leather buys raw deer and bison hides, sends the skins to Colonial for tanning and coloring, and then sorts the tanned leather for sale to luxury goods manufacturers, mostly in Italy and China.
“You have to have a specialty,” Smrtic says. “The commodity stuff comes out of China or Vietnam or wherever the next low-wage, low-regulation place is.”
The common denominator for Gloversville’s remaining tanners, leather finishers, and glove makers is quality custom work. Townsend Leather in nearby Johnstown produces performance aircraft upholstery leather. Daniel Hannis, president of Adjon Inc., handles sheep and goat skins, sending the raw hides to Colonial for tanning and selling the finished leather for high-end fashion and military gloves. Brent Heroth, who opened Brooklynn Custom Leather Works about a year ago, paints and stamps patterns into leather for furniture makers and interior designers.
“I was a little kid when the industry was strong, and I’ve seen it take a dive,” Heroth says. “I keep doing the small things that the bigger places don’t want to be bothered with. People are looking for custom and quality, and I can give them that.”
Samco, one of Gloversville’s last remaining glove companies, makes leather dress gloves for the U.S. military, turning out more than 100,000 pairs a year, by hand, on traditional sewing machines. The company’s co-owner, Richard Warner, went to work in the glove business straight out of high school in 1979. He was hired as superintendent at Samco in 1996 when its owners, Salvatore and Ila Greco, decided to expand. At its peak, Samco employed 75 people but now is down to 35, largely because sewing machine operators are hard to find, Warner says.
“The only thing that has saved us is that clothing for the military has to be made in the USA,” Warner said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.”
Glove making was always considered the upper-crust industry in town. Men wore white shirts and ties to work in the glove factories, in sharp contrast to the tanners who returned home at night reeking of animal hides and chemicals. The money was better too, allowing many families to send their children to college. City Councilman Vincent DeSantis grew up in a family of glove makers and came home from college each summer to work in a tannery, his father’s way of encouraging him to finish his degree.
“The tanners worked very hard physically in very rough conditions,” DeSantis says. “Sometimes when you’d walk past a tannery or in the neighborhood of a tannery, you could smell that smell of unfinished leather and the smell of tanning.” The dirty tanning of old killed the fish in Cayadutta Creek and left Fulton County with more than two dozen abandoned and contaminated industrial locations designated for cleanup as federal Superfund or brownfield sites. Several still await remediation.
“They said our city smelled so bad because of all the chemicals, but nobody complained because everybody had money,” says Mayor King.
Then, in 1989, as tanneries continued to shutter, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent ripples of fear through the community. The CDC reported that tanners on the finishing line who used the solvent dimethlyformamide (DMF) could be at increased risk of testicular cancer. The CDC based its findings, in part, on three cases of testicular cancer diagnosed in workers at a Gloversville tannery. Fulton County medical records added another seven cases to the total. Half of the cancer patients had worked in tanneries. The New York Times reported at the time that the tannery in question had stopped using DMF dyes, as had other nearby facilities, but that did little to assuage anxiety.
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino, who grew up in Gloversville, said he had friends with testicular cancer who had worked in the tanneries or leather shops. “It was definitely a concern,” he said. “Everybody thought that was where it came from.”
Today, leather processing in the United States is highly regulated. Smrtic’s Colonial tannery workers wear protective equipment, masks, and gloves and most of all, manage the chromium solution carefully to ensure that the chemicals are fully absorbed by the leather and not wasted in the bath. The tannery uses a multistage process to treat its effluent, separating solids, removing sulfides in a contact tank, adjusting the pH balance, filtering and clarifying (twice), and testing the water before discharging it into the closely monitored municipal wastewater system. Even Heroth’s small shop has to have a monitored wastewater permit.
The Cayadutta Creek now is a sparkling trout stream and with the Mohawk River (also much improved) provides abundant water for Fulton County’s growing dairy-products and food industry. Fage USA, a maker of Greek yogurt, and Euphrates, a feta cheese company, opened plants, attracted in part by the extensive water and sewer infrastructure built originally for the tannery industry. Pata Negra, a Spanish cured meat company, is making chorizo in Gloversville.
A Walmart distribution center in Johnstown and a Target distribution center in neighboring Montgomery County have brought jobs to the area. The county is also wooing internet businesses and light industry, touting affordable housing, beautiful scenery in the foothills of the Adirondacks, proximity to New York City and shovel-ready sites.
Gloversville has an ambitious downtown redevelopment plan that calls for renovating the city’s grand old buildings and revitalizing nearby homes to create a vibrant community where residents can walk to shops and restaurants. The Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market has opened in Memorial Hall, an opera house built in 1881, and DeSantis expects more businesses to follow.
“I saw Gloversville when it was really booming and everybody was working,” says DeSantis. “Then I went away to school and to the Army and came back to practice law in 1978. And Gloversville was declining and really kind of bottoming out in the 90s. It’s been in a funk. And now, to see Gloversville bootstrapping itself up in the 21st century, well, that’s an exciting thing.”
Funding for this project was provided in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Larry C. Price contributed reporting for this story.