Thursday, September 22, 2011

A couple of days ago I took a detour on my way home from work to visit St. Paul Saddlery on James and West 7th in St. Paul, MN. In business since 1908, the company is one of the few still manufacturing horse harness for carriage and draft teams. It's operated by a descendant of the founder, a guy named Gary, who toils alone in a room full of antiquated machinery that cuts, stitches, punches and bangs on leather. I thought it might be interesting to converse with Gary for a little while and get some perspective on a business that's a remnant from another era. He was pretty pessimistic about the harness business and business in general. When I inquired about leather tanning, the process that produces his raw material, he said that US hides were shipped overseas for tanning, that little of that was done here and like everything else, our manufacturing capability was sadly relocating to foreign locations.

I mentioned that in my earlier years I had worked in a packing house. That working in the hide cellar, step number one in turning the exterior of a cow into leather, was regarded as the worst possible job in the plant and employment there considered punishment by those unfortunate enough to be sent there. That I had never had any ambition to work in a tannery. That I knew no one who had ever expressed such an ambition. That no child had ever told me that their goal in life was to become a tanner. That I would be very much surprised if a domestic tannery could attract permanent employees. And that the nation's fixation with college education didn't include courses in leather production. For some reason this put a damper on the conversation and I soon left.

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