north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
     Along with the lumber and paper industries, tanneries, in the first half of the twentieth century, were a vital component of the economy of western North Carolina. The tanning process, whereby animal hides were made into leather goods, has a long history in the Tar Heel State. The industrious Moravians at Salem were the first to engage in tanning on a large scale. In the nineteenth century home tanning, along with spinning, soapmaking, and hogkilling, was part of everyday life in many households. Farmers would reserve a large cutout log for the work, filling it with ashes or lime to abet the soaking and precede the scrapping.

     Around 1900 entrepreneurs established about a half-dozen commercial tanneries across the mountains. This was a regional phenomenon, boosted by the ready availability of the key ingredient, the tannic acid derived from chipped oak or chestnut wood. The blight and death of the chestnut trees spurred the tanning industry as it did the paper industry.

     C. C. Smoot built a tannery on 35 acres near North Wilkesboro in 1897. Hans Rees had a tannery in Asheville, along the floodplain of the French Broad River. One of the buildings there survives to this day. C. J. Harris had a tannery in Sylva that operated from 1901 to 1957, producing industrial machine belts and shoe sole leather. At its peak of operation in 1922 he employed 350 people and could tan 300 hides per day, producing 62,000 barrels of tannic acid per year. A smaller operation was in place near Hazelwood in Haywood County.

     Joseph Silversteen (1879-1958), a Russian-born Jew, and his wife Elizabeth (in time very active in the Daughters of the American Revolution) moved south from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and established the Toxaway Tanning Company, in 1901. He purchased 20,000 forested acres from George Vanderbilt. The Toxaway community today is known as Rosman. The name change, enacted to avoid confusion with nearby Lake Toxaway, was selected to honor two of Silversteen’s colleagues, Joseph Rosenthal and Morris Osmansky.

     Silversteen became the principal industrial leader in the county, establishing in 1916 a second tanning company in Brevard, the Transylvania Tanning Company, while also founding the Rosman Tanning Extract Company and the Gloucester Lumber Company. He built his estate, known as “Silvermont,” in Brevard. As economic and industrial trends changed, the aging Silversteen closed his Rosman operation in 1958. No remnant of the tanning company remains (a smokestack remains at the Brevard site). In Rosman the site today is the location of the city hall, a ballfield, and a pool.


References:
Brian M. du Toit, The Silversteens and Silvermont (2005)
Laura Philips and Deborah Thompson, Transylvania: TheArchitectural History of a Mountain County (1998)
Catherine Bishir, Michael Southern, and Jennifer Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999)
John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A History (From 1730 to 1913) (1914)
Leonard Rogoff, Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina (2010)
Max R. Williams, ed., History of Jackson County, North Carolina (1987)
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north carolina highway historical marker program


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