Shown above: An aerial view of the Sawyer Tannery on the Napa River from the Northwest. The tannery consisted of a complex of buildings on Third Street, south of downtown Napa. The tannery closed long ago, but the buildings now serve a variety of local businesses. The water tower has been repurposed as a cell tower.

Napa Valley's Tanning Industry Heritage

Situated in the spectacularly beautiful wine-growing region of the Napa Valley, The Hide and Leather House has a storied past in the history of the California leather industry. Long before the wine industry took prominence, the City of Napa, California, had a sizable leather industry that began on the banks of the Napa River in 1869. It was at that time that F.A. Sawyer founded his tannery to process the abundance of raw material that the area provided, including sheep and cattle hides. 

Feeding hides into the thingy-ma-jiggy 

These tanning drums were used to ensure uniformity in the process of treating the hides. This worker is feeding a stack of hides into the drum.

Napa Valley's Growing Tanning Industry

Soon, another tannery, Calnap Tanning Company, was constructed to meet an ever-growing demand for leather on the West Coast. In its heyday, Napa employed hundreds of people involved in footwear, garments, personal leather goods, and glove making. In fact, our sister company Napa Glove Co, Inc. (founded in 1888), was one of the first of five customers for the tanneries.

Third Street tanning businesses in Napa

Third Street in the City of Napa showing the growth of thriving tanning businesses.

Historical Tanning Processes

Here are a few shots of the tanning process in the late 1800s in Napa Valley, all courtesy the Napa County Historical Society.

Unhairing machine for hides

Shown above: The process of unhairing a hide

Sorting Hides

Shown above: Sorting hides for processing

Selecting hides for dying

Shown above: Choosing hide sides for coloring

Sawyer Tannery under construction

Shown above: Sawyer Tannery under construction in the 1870s

The Sawyer Partnership

For the better part of a century, Napa was nearly as famous for tanning as wine. Napa leather was used for such products as baseballs, baseball gloves, patent leather shoes, and stylish outerwear. The Sawyer Tannery Company, founded by F. A. Sawyer in 1869, was joined by his father, B. F. Sawyer, a tanner from New Hampshire, a year later. And in 1871, Emanuel Manasse, also a tanner and a son of a tanner, joined the firm.

Then A. W. Norton and S. E. Holden joined the firm in 1872 and 1875, respectively, which was conducted as a partnership under the name of B. F. Sawyer & Company until 1886.

Sawyer Tannery Executives

Shown above: The owners and partners of the Sawyer Tanning Company

Workers of the Sawyer Tannery circa 1889

Shown above: The employees of the Sawyer Tannery Company in a photo dated 1889

Peak Napa Tanning Production

The Sawyer Tannery's maximum capacity in 1926 was about fourteen hundred sides per day of upper leather which eventually would be manufactured into shoes. It went on to become the largest tannery west of the Mississippi River by 1939.

The Hide and Leather House's History

The Hide and Leather House is so steeped in tradition that the term “Nappa” leather is derived from our history of producing fine leathers and garments in Napa.

The Hide and Leather House was set up to act as a “factory outlet” for the two tanneries some forty years ago. Ceasing operations years ago, the tanneries no longer exist. However, The Hide and Leather House carries on the tradition by sourcing and importing leathers from around the world. Domestically, we do an abundance of “Contract Tanning” of various leathers including cowhide, deerskin, elkskin and bison.

Today, The Hide and Leather House offers one of the world’s finest selections of leathers – stocking well over 3,000 types of leathers with a consistency and a quality you can count on. No customer is too small or too large for us to help. For those looking for one-stop shopping for all of your leather needs, please call one of our friendly and knowledgeable sales representatives. Our staff is ready to help. You will be amazed at what we have to offer. For both existing and potential customers, thank you for the opportunity to serve you! Please remember, “LEATHER IS BETTER!”