|18FR575 Birely Tannery
The Birely Tannery site is located near the corner of Patrick and Carroll Streets in Frederick, Maryland. In the 18th century, Frederick was an attractive area for settlers of German descent moving south from Pennsylvania as well as westward migrants from southern Maryland and the Potomac drainage. Speculator Daniel Dulany and his descendants bought a great deal of property in Frederick and parceled out land for a town with both residential living and industry in mind.
In 1764, Daniel Dulany sold two lots on the southeast side of town to a tanner named Matthius Nead. The area was well suited to a tannery because it was downstream and downwind from most of town, allowing easy water access for tanning activities without contaminating the rest of Frederick with the foul odors and waste products associated with the industry. Nead seems to have operated a tannery at the site in the 18th century, though it is unclear how long his ownership lasted.
By 1819 the Birely family had taken over operation of a tannery at the site, though they may have been there as early as 1800. Among the people who worked there were at least four enslaved men who were listed as tanners in records pertaining to the Birelys from 1825-1835, though it is not known whether these men were skilled master tanners or unskilled laborers.
Various members of the Birely family ran a tannery at the site throughout the 19th century, and the business was quite profitable until a fire destroyed its infrastructure in 1909. Although the family did rebuild, the business declined in the early 20th century. The owners abandoned the labor-intensive tanning operation and instead ran a leather supply company at the site until 1960.
The Birely Tannery site was identified during a 1979 Phase I investigation of land that was slated to be impacted by a flood-control project on Carroll Creek. Phase II and III investigations followed in 1983 and 1991 respectively. Only the area of impact along Carroll Creek was studied, leaving much of the lots that once housed the tannery operation untouched, but many structures and features were identified.
Nineteenth-century features associated with the tanning trade included: a bark mill and shed which was used in the production of tanning bark, the raw material needed for turning hides into leather; a hide house where hides purchased from farmers or butchers were processed and stored; a lime shed for storing lime which was used with water to soak hides for ease of hair removal; a beam house used for various steps in processing and cleaning hides; bating vats where hides were softened in an alkaline solution made with ash, bird dung, or dog dung; drenching vats where the most durable leathers, such as shoe soles, were soaked in solutions of rye or ash bark; handler vats where bated and drenched hides received final soaking and processing prior to tanning; and tanning vats where hides were soaked in water and tanning bark to cause the chemical reactions that preserve leather. Additionally, the site yielded a cobble path and a dump site for hair and scraps.
Below these features, in contexts sealed by flood layers and introduced fill, were intact deposits relating to the operation of the 18th-century tannery. Sample test units in these deeper deposits yielded 18th-century artifacts, an early paling fence, and a discarded vat.
A rich variety of artifacts associated with the tanning industry and the people who worked at the site were recovered. For example, many leather goods were preserved by the unusual soil chemistry left behind by the tanning process, including shoes, scrap leather, and at least one horse harness fragment. Additionally, faunal remains indicate that the leather made at the site was primarily from young cows between the ages of nine and 15 months. Calf skin leather was a specialty in the tanning trade, requiring a lot of hand labor, and the Birelys may have found success in the industry by focusing on this particular niche market. Tools and personal items were also recovered.
|Carr, Kurt W. and William Gardner
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|Hoffman, Robert F.
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|The Birely Tannery. Historic and archeological investigation into the workings of a late 19th century tannery located in the city of Frederick, Md.
|Thomas, Ronald A.
|Phase III data recovery at the Birely Tannery (18FR575), City of Frederick, Md.
The Birely Tannery archaeological collection is owned by the Maryland Historical Trust and curated at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.