PAOLI, Wis. — A stiff piece of cowhide and a mangled beaver pelt tacked to the wall serve as reminders of the beginnings.
A pile of soft, plush sheep skins are the proof of progress for these Soil Sisters, their biceps well-toned, their business plan unique.
Driftless Traditional Tannery is providing farmers with an alternative for their hides without the use of harsh chemicals favored by large-scale tanneries.
Instead of chromium, bactericides, acids and formaldehyde, the recipe for success for Bethany Storm, Danielle Dockery and Brandi Bonde includes salt, alum, farm fresh eggs and gallons of olive oil purchased in bulk from Costco.
A visit last week to their small production facility behind Landmark Creamery in this artisan hamlet offered up a glimpse of the physically demanding, wet and sometimes dangerous work required to turn a hide into a blanket, throw, seat cover, dog bed, purse or drum.
"I think we all enjoy the physical work of it," Bonde, 43, said. "We're all the type of people who move constantly. It will keep us fit, that's for sure."
The process can include the use of sharp hand tools and the "machine of doom," a motorized fleshing machine that resembles a grinding wheel only with a razor-sharp blade to remove membranes. Hides, most always speckled with blood and fecal matter, are cleaned with a power washer and transferred back and forth into troughs, a washing machine and a massive tumbler. And it's all done by hand.
"The cleaning process is intense, and messy and critical," Dockery, 51, said. "And when it's wet it's really heavy and your shoulders are on fire. And that's what I love."
The trio, all farmers themselves, have combined their talents to create one of the few natural tannery businesses in the country that specializes in sheep. They also do goat, alpaca and rabbit and are looking into expanding their species, but for now most of their business is in sheep hides, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The business is actually divided into two sectors. Farmers can pay $75 to have hides tanned, which accounts for 95% of the tannery's revenue, and then keep the hides for themselves or sell them to their own customers.
The tannery also collects hides from farmers and meat processing facilities that would have otherwise discarded them. Those hides are sold on the Driftless Traditional Tannery website. Prices for hides typically range from $250 to $350, while goatskin drums range from $180 to $200. The tannery is also hoping to work with artisans and seamstresses to create other products from the hides, which make up about 10% of the weight of an animal.
"So if you're raising this animal and you're putting all of the effort into feeding it and growing it, 10% of the weight is garbage," said Storm, 44. "Whereas you can take a hide like this and you can process it the way we process it, and its worth $250 to $400. It depends on size and quality but it can add a lot of value for especially small farmers who are just trying to make a living. It can cover the cost of raising the animal, for sure."
Jeanne and Mark Lydon have been raising raise sheep in the town of Sun Prairie for the last seven years and had been taking their hides to Stern Tanning Co. in Milwaukee, where they were paying about $55 per hide.
The Lydons sell some of their hides but also use them in their own home on chairs and beds and use some of the hides to make slippers.
Last week, Jeanne Lydon loaded up the front passenger seat of her Chevy Equinox with the hides from two Tunis and three Shetland sheep and for the first time brought them to Paoli.
"I raise the sheep mostly for the meat, but the wool feels kind of like a bonus and it feels good to be able to use the whole animal," Jeanne Lydon said. "I love the product that I get (from Stern), but when these guys opened up with their traditional methods I just was so excited to support their business. There's such a need for this type of tanning and having access to this in our area is such a gift. I'm really looking forward to the end product."
Native Americans had been tanning hides for generations prior to white settlement. The earliest commercial tanning manufacturer opened in Wisconsin in 1842, and at its peak around 1900, the state was producing about 15% of the nation's raw leather, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Concentrated primarily in Kenosha, Racine, Fond du Lac, Manitowoc/Two Rivers and Milwaukee, the industry exploded during the Civil War when Wisconsin companies were called on to provide shoes, harnesses and other equipment for soldiers.
Three of the largest were in Milwaukee. German immigrant Albert G. Trostel went into partnership in 1856 with August Gallum before opening his own tannery in 1882 along the Milwaukee River. The Trostel & Sons complex grew to 22 buildings on 10 acres and processed thousands of hides each week along with nearby competitors Gallum and Pfister & Vogel.
"Leather tanneries were located along streams or lakes to take advantage of the water needed to process hides," according to the historical society. "Unfortunately, the byproducts of tanning had a detrimental effect on the environment, polluting waterways and producing harmful odors."
The last Trostel building was imploded in the 1980s and the area eyed for redevelopment, but soil tests revealed high levels of chromium and sulfate. Groundwater was also impacted, but at lower levels, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The genesis of Driftless Traditional Tannery began in 2019 when Storm, Bonde and Dockery began discussing hides and better processes for tanning that didn't use chemicals. Bonde had been experimenting on her New Glarus farm with tanning but was having limited success, while Storm was using a tanning company that was returning hides smelling of chemicals.
The trio are members of Soil Sisters, a group of about 225 women in southern Wisconsin who farm, garden or just simply like good food and are collectively trumpeting the alternatives of the rural economy. They moved the tanning operation from Bonde's barn to Paoli in October but are looking for more space and have launched a $30,000 GoFundMe campaign to upgrade some of their equipment.
Since 2014, Storm has lived between New Glarus and Blanchardville and has sheep, goats and chickens. Bonde raises sheep, goats and chickens and has a milk cow at her farm, while a few houses away Dockery raises alpaca, sheep, turkey and bees. Each can do every job at the tannery but generally speaking, Storm and Dockery handle the dirtier end of the operation, while Bonde focuses on finishing work, which involves brushing, combing and trimming. Storm also handles the accounting end of the business. Dockery, who spent 30 years in international shipping, is in charge of logistics, customer service, shipping and the company's Facebook page, while Bonde handles retail listings and runs the website and Instagram account.
"This is such a nasty, chemical heavy, chromium process, and we just didn't want to do that," said Storm, who serves as the company's alchemist. "That's not the way I farm. It's not the way I want to process animals. We wanted to do better so we started a conversation."
The trio worked with the Green County Small Business Development Center to formulate a business plan and began tanning in January 2020 in Bonde's barn. After more fails than successes, they reached out to Keith Mitchell, a Utah chemist who specializes in leather, to help them tweak their recipe.
"We would not have been successful without actually reaching out out for help on the formula," Dockery said. "It would have taken another year of trial and error. And we still need continuing ed."
The process begins with the farmers who are asked to remove the flesh and dry the hides for two to three weeks with a layer of barn salt before they are shipped to the tannery. Once they arrive they are hung until they are placed in a booth and power-washed and brushed.
The hides then go into plastic tubs of borax, water and eco-friendly degreaser before they are placed in a pickle of salt and citric acid. It's during this process that the membrane swells, which allows it to be removed with the fleshing machine. Hides are then returned to the pickle, followed by a bath of alum and salt for a day before it is rinsed and spun in an LG washing machine purchased off Craigslist.
The hide is then moved to a table where it is massaged with a mixture of olive oil, soap and egg. After a couple days of hanging to absorb the oil, the piece enters an 8-foot-high wooden drum powered by an electric motor. The eight-hour tumble breaks down the fibers and softens the skin of the hides. The final steps include trimming the edges, brushing, combing and using a power sander and pumice stone to buff the leather on the opposite side of the fiber.
"People have been doing this for thousands of years," Bonde said. "We're women-owned and women-operated, but this has always been women's work."