The Clark Tannery in 19th Century Amesbury
By Tom Murphy
Member, ACM Industrial Survey Team
In the 19th Century, leather was a necessity that filled a unique niche. Rugged and flexible, it was used in shoes and boots for soles and uppers, tack for horses for transportation and work, and belts to run machinery in steam and water mills. A tannery would appear early in the life of any town. In the eighteenth century tanneries were small-scale, local operations, perhaps part-time work for a farmer, but as the country grew the demand for leather grew, and in the nineteenth century larger operations appeared.
In 1824, Seth Clark (1801-1887) purchased, on what is now Elm Street (see Figure 1), a parcel of land that included a section of the Back River. On this land Clark planned to erect a tannery mill, and, since access to water is essential in the tanning process, the spot was an ideal location.
Tanning required (and still requires) a great deal of water for rinsing and soaking the hides and a way to dispose of that water fouled by dirt, decomposing flesh, and noxious chemicals.
Often when hides arrived at the tannery, they had been salted to dehydrate them and slow down their decomposition. The first step was to wash off the salt and other offal and rehydrate the hides. Hides were then soaked in a lime solution to loosen the hair and swell the fiber . The next step was to scrape off the hair from the outside and the residual flesh from the inside of the hide. The hides also needed to be delimed, another rinsing process.
The next step was the actual beginning of the tanning process, which involved soaking the hides in pits or vats filled with water mixed with increasing concentrations of tannin. Tannin, derived from the bark stripped from trees (see Figure 2), especially oak and hemlock, is the chemical that stabilizes hides and turns them into leather. The need for tannin also explains a second important reason that Seth Clark wanted to locate on the Back River: water power.
In order to extract the maximum amount of tannin from the bark, it must be ground into small pieces. That’s why the 1830 map (Figure 3) labels it a bark mill. As part of the 1824 deed, the seller, Philip Wadleigh promised that he would not “obstruct the waters of said back river in any part of the same below the above granted premises” (Essex County Deeds Bk 236, Pg 7). The amount of power a water mill can generate depends on the head, the vertical drop between the water coming into the mill (in the headrace) and the water leaving the mill and returning to the river (in the tailrace). Clark would need to raise the head at the tannery by building a dam and creating a mill pond. If Wadleigh were to build a dam downstream, it would back up water reducing the head at the tannery. On the other hand, when Clark built his dam, he needed the right to flood land upstream, so in 1827, Clark secured the right from ten landowners along the Back River,
to flow and cover with water so much of said land as may be necessary in order to raise a head of water at the tannery of said Clark on said back river to the height of the upper side of of [sic] a certain drill hole and an iron bolt driven therein in a rock at the northeasterly end of the baptist meeting house (Essex County Deeds Bk 244, Pg 17-31).
He paid a total of about $1,400 for those rights, about $35,000 in 2018 dollars. The original dam is gone; the current Clarks Pond is held up by a dam built in the late 1950’s.
So far we have not been able to determine what kind of grinding mechanism the water powered in the Clark Tannery, but an article in The Villager in 1865 notes that at one time the tannery employed 20 people, turned out 8000 sides of leather and consumed 1000 cords of bark a year . The water powered bark grinder would have been a significant asset. Though there were many shoemakers in Amesbury and Salisbury, we don’t know whether he supplied any of them with leather; however, we do know that Seth Clark took wagons full of leather to Salem and Boston.
Tanning has a high environmental impact, creating noxious odors and toxic effluent. Seth Clark and his three brothers lived in a pair of duplex mansions adjacent to the tannery (see Figure 4), but they were not too close, and they were up hill on Market Street. The tannery in 1854 has perhaps expanded since the 1830 map. We do not know whether the tannery used pits in an outside tan yard or vats inside the long building or both, but a flood in 1855 that caused Clarks Pond to overflow washed away a hundred hides and some already-ground bark .
The End of the Clark Tannery
In 1850, we have more specific information in Non-Population Census Data  about the production of tanned leather at the Clark Tannery. Joseph N. Clark (1808-1883), the Clark brother running the operation at that time, employed 6 men and paid them each $30 a month. In that year they turned 2000 hides into 4000 sides of leather. A side is half of a hide cut lengthwise. The value of the leather produced was $8,000. During the decade, business must have sagged because an article in the Amesbury Villager in January of 1858 reports “the prospect of the immediate revival of business” at the Clark’s Tannery since they had made a large purchase of hides and because another company had leased the patent leather department and planned to run that enterprise. 
If there was a positive impact, it must have been short-lived because two years later, in 1860, another Non-Population Census shows production had been cut in half, the workforce had been reduced to 5 men being paid $25 a month, and the value of the leather has been reduced by almost 63%. In 1865, Joseph Clark sold the tannery, including the water power, to a group intending to build a woolen factory, what became the Colchester Mill.  In 1850, the Census had shown that eight tanning operations in Amesbury and Salisbury processed 10,700 cowhides and 1500 goat kid hides into leather. By 1870, one was left, Flanders Brothers, tanning only 300 hides. What happened?
Tanning had moved west. In 1850, the average cost of a cord of tan bark was around $5.00; the one remaining local tannery in 1870 paid almost $12.00 a cord . Proximity to high-tannin trees like oaks and hemlocks in New Hampshire and Maine became the key to cost efficient tanning. As forests along the East Coast began to disappear, shipping the heavy bark longer distances became more expensive. In addition, the need for sufficient water power to drive the bark mill gave way to the steam engine, especially since the spent tannin bark could be used to fuel the engines so that a waste problem became an asset.  Tannery towns could spring up in the forest. Writing in 1888, Nessmuk, a northern Pennsylvania outdoor writer lamented how the ancient hemlock forest around him was being destroyed:
Even as I write the hoary centurions of the forest are going down on every side before a hurricane of axemen, and being scalped by a cyclone of "spudders." The tannery village, that unique production of modern days, springs up at a month's notice on every considerable stream where bark is available, and the long, low tannery, with its labyrinth of vats and villainous refuse, commences its vocation of poisoning and depleting the purest trout streams in the land. 
The rise of the railroads also changed the equation, and even at that early time the ability of business to operate on a global level was affecting Amesbury. Nessmuk had thought his isolated forest was safe from destruction on a large scale:
It did not seem credible that a cargo of hides could be sent around Cape Horn to New York, run up into the mountains of northern Pennsylvania by rail, tanned into sole leather there and sent back to the Pacific coast at a profit. It seems wonderful to me, even at this day. But, cold facts cannot be melted by theories .
After retiring from the tanning business, Joseph Clark went into politics and banking. He died in an accident in 1883. Driving toward Market Square in his carriage, “the breeching [see Figure 5] being too loose, the carriage came against the horse’s heels, causing him to run”  so that Clark was thrown from the carriage. He was taken home, where he died. Thus the retired tanner was done in by a malfunctioning leather harness.
So the Clark Tannery would give way to the Colchester Woolen Mill, an enterprise being launched in the post-Civil War recession, but that is another story. The pond itself is the only evidence that for forty years a tannery existed on Elm Street, it’s presence obscured by the building of the Colchester Mill over it and the moving of the dam. But the question can arise, “Why is it called Clarks Pond?” and answering that question unearths some history and suggests things to look for in the present that are rooted in our past. Life in Amesbury is enriched today when, in our comings and goings, we can see connections with the people who lived here before us.
 Procter, H. R. The Making of Leather. Half-Title: The Cambridge Manuals of Science and Literature. Cambridge Eng. New York: University Press; G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1914. p 37. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001036463.
 “Sale of Real Estate.” The Villager. October 26, 1865. p 2.
 “Flood and Frost.”
 “U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.”
 “Sale of Real Estate.”
 “U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.”
 “Tanneries and Railroads.”
 Nessmuk, “What Shall Be the Outcome?”
 “Sad Accident.”
Craigie, Carter. “Tanning In Chester County, Pennsylvania 1711-1850.” Pennsylvania Folklife Magazine 18, no. 1 (October 1, 1968): 2–15.
“Incidents of Food and Frost.” The Villager, February 22, 1855.
Nessmuk. “What Shall Be the Outcome?” Forest and Stream, 1888.
Procter, H. R. The Making of Leather. Half-Title: The Cambridge Manuals of Science and Literature. Cambridge Eng. New York: University Press; G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1914. p 37 https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001036463.
“Revival of Business at Clarks Tannery.” The Villager. January 14, 1858.
“Sad Accident.” Weekly News. December 14, 1883.
“Sale of Real Estate.” The Villager. October 26, 1865.
“Tanneries and Railroads.” Scientific American 11, no. 34 (1856): 270–270.
“U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.” Accessed March 6, 2019. https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=1276.
About the author
Tom Murphy, a retired English professor who has lived in Amesbury for about six years now, was excited about moving to a place settled in the seventeenth century. His love of and curiosity about history and nature, and his interest in how technology develops and how it affects people’s lives all drew him to ACM’s Industrial Survey Team. This piece on the Clarks Tannery engages all those areas and shows how geography shapes our lives and how our lives reshape the geography.