An Industrial Ecosystem: How Leather And Wool Fueled Pittsburgh's Early Growth

Oct 9, 2015

Georgie Kovacosky leaned on the fence surrounding a sunny enclosure on her 230-acre farm in New Bethlehem, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  

“Here’s my lamb flock. They were born in April and now they’re growing to be big adults. These guys are working on 100 to 150 pounds,” she said. 

Three Cheers Farm is built on top of a ridge, and her flock of sheep wanders the pastures that range along its spine.

“They have a lot of freedom here,” said Kovacosky.  

A sheep tagged 0358 sidled up to the fence to nuzzle Kovacosky’s leg. She scratched the tuft of wool on top of his head. Choosing the breed, Dorset, was a balancing act, she said.  

“With the Dorset, they’re a good meat breed, but they’re also a beautiful wool breed.”

Kovacosky raises her animals with respect and wants nothing to go to waste: her lambs and sheep provide meat, wool, sheepskins; bones for stock and fat for soap and candles.

“Our first batch of lambs will go for processing next week. As soon as the hides come off, those hides have to be salted within a few hours. If it just sets and isn’t salted, then the wool will slip off and you can’t send it to be tanned,” she said.  

Nowadays, the nearest tannery is clear across the state. But the process of preserving as much of an animal as possible used to be in the heart of Pittsburgh.

An animal after slaughter is meat and hide. Businesses that separated one from the other and into finished products centralized in East Liberty during the mid-1800s, moving to Herr’s Island in the Allegheny River by the early 1900s.

“We worked six days a week,” said Jeff Kumer, who learned how to run Pittsburgh Wool Company -- the business he inherited from his father and grandfather -- from the ground up.   

“It was very, very, very hard work. It was bitter cold in the winter. You had to pull those big heavy lamb pelts out of the water every morning. 1,200 of them waiting for you. And they weighed 60, 70 pounds apiece. You had to break the ice first before you went in.”

Pittsburgh Wool kept company with stockyards, meat packing plants, a rendering plant, tanneries, wool pulleries, all the other businesses doing the hard, inglorious work of turning animals into food, clothing, and tools said historian David Rotenstein, who documented Pittsburgh Wool Company before it ceased operations in 2000. 

“Without these smaller scale processing industries like the tanners and the wool pullers and the other craftspeople, the larger industries wouldn’t have been able to thrive as well as they did,” he said.  

Objects such as leather belts literally ran the city’s machines.

“The amount of material that went into feeding and clothing and equipping Pittsburgh’s workforce is just unimaginable at this point,” said Rotenstein.

Two different railroads delivered cars of five or six thousand pelts each to the mill, stored in stacks 25 feet high. After being washed, sodium sulfide, a chemical that corroded the change in employees’ pockets, was applied to the pelts to loosen the wool. The pullers would grade it—tossing clumps into different bins according to fineness — sometimes doing more than 250 skins a day, former employee Frank Hayson, now deceased, told Rotenstein.

“You didn’t mope around; you got paid per skin. So much an hour and so much a skin. If you didn’t pull em you didn’t make any money. So you had to move,” he said.  

Though domestic meat consumption has increased since the 20th century, domestic processing of that meat and its byproducts has only decreased, said Kumer.

“We were the last one doing it in this country. Which made us either very steadfast or a relic, I’m not sure which.”

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