OWATONNA, MINN. – Believing he would be happily retired by now, Lanny Uber had not intended the other day to be in the upstairs offices of Century Leather Products, talking business.
Nor, for that matter, had he ever intended for the name of the company his ancestors founded eight generations ago to be called anything but Uber Glove and Tanning.
Now it’s called both: Century Leather Products by Uber Glove and Tanning Co.
“As far as we know, we’re the only tannery in the nation that will take a hunter’s hide, tan it and return it, at least at the volume we do it,’’ Lanny said.
Joined by his daughter and son-in-law, Katie and Phillip Hildebrandt, the latter the CEO of Century Leather Products, Lanny was explaining the on-again, off-again — and on-again — ownership odyssey that has beset Uber Glove and Tanning since 2006.
That’s when the company was sold to a Twin Cities man, marking the first time in more than a century the tannery and custom leather shop that bore the family name wasn’t owned and operated by someone named Uber.
By 2012, after the new owner had walked away from the business, the company was back in Owatonna under family ownership.
Founded in 1904, Uber Glove and Tanning was the brainchild of Adolph Uber, who traveled to Owatonna from Hartford, Wis., to establish the tannery that bore his name.
“Carl Gottlieb Uber was Adolph’s father, and Carl came to Wisconsin in 1854 from what was then Silesia, Prussia — now Germany — to continue the family tanning business, which they had started prior to 1800,’’ Lanny said. “Carl had four sons, and Adolph split away from the others and came to Owatonna.’’
Adolph Uber couldn’t have known at the time, but the tannery and leather shop he founded would eventually be revered by deer, elk and moose hunters as a place where their hides could be tanned and, if they chose, turned into fine leather mittens, gloves, jackets and vests.
“About half of the hunters who bring us hides just want them tanned and returned, and they make the clothing themselves,’’ Katie said. “The other half want us to make mittens, gloves or other clothing for them.’’
The same items are for retail sale, she noted, to people who have no hides to tan, at the company’s Owatonna shop and on its website, clpuber.com.
Having hung around the family business, and worked there, since she was a girl, Katie opted in college to follow another career track and studied statistics. With the sale of Uber Glove and Tanning in 2006, she believed she would forever be out of the tannery and clothing business.
That turned out to be partly true — today, she works at a large Owatonna insurance company. But with her husband, Phillip, in charge of the company’s day-to-day operations, producing gloves and mittens not only for individuals but for wholesale distribution, she’s inevitably involved, too.
“Katie and I were dating when I first started working with Lanny and running the tannery,’’ Phillip said. “Now Lanny is largely retired and Katie and I have a 2-year-old daughter, Emma, and another on the way. The company’s legacy is one we want to continue.’’
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Today’s hide and tannery businesses are conducted on a global scale.
Deer hides are its centerpiece, and unbeknownst to most hunters, hides from whitetails they drop off at local butcher shops or other processors traditionally have ended up in China. Most are turned into gloves and shipped back to the U.S., and to other countries, for sale.
Some years, however, the Chinese don’t buy many deer hides. This floods the U.S. market and drives prices down. Last year, whether due to U.S.-imposed tariffs or other reasons, was such a year.
“Deer hides make particularly good gloves because they’re softer than most leathers,’’ Lanny said. “Deer is also abrasive-resistant, with good tensile strength, and it has a very tight weave. Elk is second best for clothing, and moose third.’’
As Lanny spoke, Tasia Voegele could be seen through large glass windows sewing mittens on vintage industrial machines. Two and perhaps three pairs of mittens can be made from a single deer hide, Lanny said, depending on its quality and size.
The machine Voegele operated was one of many transported to the Twin Cities after Uber Glove and Tanning was sold. The equipment made a return trip to Owatonna in 2012 when the new operator walked away from the business.
Lanny bought the equipment from the bank that financed the original sale. Included in the transaction was the Uber name. But headaches also accompanied the repurchase, because a year’s worth of hides were in storage waiting to be processed — and some of the hide owners were angry.
“When someone drops off a hide here, we don’t take money up front as a deposit,’’ Lanny said. “But the former owner did, and when we resumed operation of the business, we started going through the hides and contacting the customers. We weren’t able to financially eat all of the deposit — we ate half. Most customers were happy with that, but some weren’t.’’
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That Owatonna, or any town in Minnesota — or the U.S., for that matter — is home to a tannery and leather clothing business is testament to the Uber family’s hard work, and, perhaps, not a little serendipity.
Decades ago, most of the nation’s garment industry moved offshore to cut labor costs, and environmental regulations have shuttered many American tanneries.
Gloversville, N.Y., located between Schenectady and Syracuse, provides one example. Named, originally, for its position atop America’s glove-making industry, the town, in its heyday, was reported to be home to as many as 100 leather and glove companies.
Now, according to a story published by the website Undark, the tanners and leather-clothing makers remaining in upstate New York are specialists, like Century Leather Products.
“To give people a reason to buy our gloves instead of those made overseas, the detailing on our products has to be perfect,’’ Katie said.
This earned a nod from her dad, and a promise from her husband.
“We plan to keep the business here in Owatonna,’’ Phillip said.