Smith: Unique Owatonna tannery closes

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2012 - 5:54 PM

Uber Tanning Co. returned the same hide to owners as custom-made items. The owner, who declared bankruptcy, is "heartbroken."

After they are cleaned, deer hides are piled high and salted for preservation at the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. The group is among those owed money by Uber Tanning, to which it sold many hides. “I just couldn’t service all the debt,” said Uber Tanning owner Jared Rinerson, who bought the company in 2006.

Photo: Judy Griesedieck, Star Tribune file

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Deer hunters from Minnesota and around the nation lost a treasured friend recently when Uber Tanning Co. -- a 108-year-old tannery in Owatonna -- closed.

The company was apparently the only one left in the nation that would accept deer and other big-game hides from hunters, tan them and return the same hide to its owners as supple leather gloves, mittens or other custom-made clothing.

It was a small family business with roots going back to 18th-century Prussia.

"I'm heartbroken,'' said Jared Rinerson, 40, of Ham Lake, who bought the company in 2006 from the Uber family but closed it this summer as he and his wife filed for personal bankruptcy.

"We struggled and struggled'' to keep the business afloat, he said. "I borrowed a lot of money to build up inventory, and I just couldn't service all the debt.''

Rinerson said he had about 2,000 customers, about a third of them from Minnesota. "We got hides from every state in the country,'' he said. The company also made deerskin mittens and gloves and sold them to retail outlets, including Scheels All Sports stores.

It was a sudden and surprising ending to a company with a rich history dating back to the 1700s, when Siegesmund Uber tanned hides in Prussia. His son, Carl, immigrated with his family to Wisconsin in 1854. In 1904, a son, Adolph, settled in Owatonna and opened up a tannery there.

In all, six generations of Ubers have worked in the tanning industry.

Rinerson thought the business had a bright future when he bought it. But a flood in 2010 damaged the Owatonna tannery and set back the company. "I lost $250,000 to $300,000 worth of orders that I couldn't fill,'' he said.

Then a 22-year-old nephew who helped in the business fell off a roof and was paralyzed. Soon Rinerson said he didn't have money to pay bills and employees, so he reluctantly closed the business.

"I really didn't think it would turn out this way,'' he said.

It's been a nightmare for him, and for those who sent hides to the company.

Now ensnared in the financial mayhem are 2,800 hides from roughly 1,400 hunters, including three of Rinerson's own hides. Some have been tanned, many haven't been. About 700 hunters had paid money up front for the work.

Now all are anxiously waiting to find out when, and if, they'll get their hides returned.

"I'm confident people will get their hides back,'' Rinerson said. "The question is when.''

It's out of his hands. A bank owns the company. And he said the hides are in the tannery in Owatonna that he leased from the previous owner, Lanny Uber. Rinerson also said he had another 7,000 of his own hides there, too. Uber couldn't be reached for comment.

Rinerson said some of the hides could spoil if they're not tanned soon.

However, he said it's possible someone will buy the company and restart it. "It's a great business; I know someone can make it work,'' he said.

Among those owed money by the company is the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Rinerson bought deer hides from the group, which collects and sells them as part of its Hides for Habitat program. Mark Johnson, executive director of the group, said it is owed several thousand dollars.

In their bankruptcy filing, the Rinersons list assets of $264,000 and liabilities of $996,000. Meanwhile, he has taken a job working in North Dakota and is trying to move on with his life.

But it's difficult.

"I loved the business,'' Rinerson said. "I've been an avid hunter all my life. Hunting isn't a hobby or a sport; it's part of you, and I was so happy to be part of it.''

While Uber was the only company where a hunter could send in a hide and get the same hide back as a finished leather product, there are others that work with hides and pelts from hunters and trappers.

USA Foxx and Furs in Duluth does hair-on tanning of furs and makes custom items -- including fur blankets, fur coats or fur hats.

"We do several hundred deer and moose hides a year,'' said owner Wayne Nurmi. But fur-bearing animals such as fox, coyote, beaver, martin, mink and muskrat make up the bulk of the business.

And whitetail hunters who still hanker for a pair of soft deerskin gloves can get them from Wiebke Fur and Trading Co., with stores in La Crosse, Wis., and Eitzen, Minn. The company buys hides, and hunters can either take cash or trade for merchandise, including deerskin gloves.

Those gloves are made in China from hides Wiebke collects and ships there for processing.

"We deal with hundreds of thousands of hides,'' said employee Jeff Adamson.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

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