Station: [1] The Tannery on the Village Square

Hello and welcome to Leustetten, one of the neighbourhoods of the village of Frickingen on Lake Constance. We’re standing in the village square, and you’ll already have noticed the large building overlooking the square. An important and profitable craft was practised there from the 18th century onwards.

We’re talking about tanning. That proud building was where the leather for horse harnesses, for bridles and saddles, for yokes and collars was produced, along with belts, shoes and boots. Sturdy shoes with tough leather soles were essential for anyone working in most farming occupations or crafts.

Cattle hides were tanned using what’s known as “tanbark” (in German “Lohe") – the bark from oak trees and spruce – to produce firm, tough leather. So it’s a plant-based, or vegetable, tanning process.

The four-storey half-timbered building on the village square was home to the Leustetten tannery for more than 120 years. The building was erected in 1837 for the tanner Johann Buchmann. He died childless in 1894, at which point his widow sold it to the Mantz family, who were also tanners. The last of them, Paul Mantz, lived here until the end of the 20th century. Fresh animal hides were tanned and leather was produced here until the 1960s.

The local mill, called the Lohmühle, or Bark Mill, is a little further up the slope. It only closed down in the 1990s and has also been preserved. Today, it houses the Bark Mill Tanning Museum.

The impressive tanner's house overlooking the village square is a listed building. As an example of a typical 19th century craftsman's house, it bears witness to the heyday of a trade that, while essential to the economy, was also rather smelly and hence objectionable.

Objectionable indeed. People weren’t squeamish in those days, so the stench must have been terrible. There’s an old tanner's verse that provides a list of everything involved, and thinking about it, we’d definitely want to hold our noses these days:

As the leather comes to be

The main thing is the stink, you see
Arsenic and flour, alum and lime,
turn it all white and make it all fine.

Egg yolk, dog poo, pints of pee
make for superior quality.

Hence the subtle sense of bliss
as you press your lips to the glove and – kiss!

The verse refers to what’s known as “tawing”, a process that uses alum as a tanning agent. The alum method produced soft, pale leather for gloves or fine items of clothing.

The building on the village square not only included the family home; it also housed a range of special purpose rooms for the tannery. At the very top of the gable was the hatch of a pigeon loft. Even the pigeon droppings were used in the tannery.

Do you see the annexe on the south side? That’s where pre-tanning took place. On the ground floor, there are seven pits, jointly known as the “Farbgang” – each pit in this “colour sequence” contained a higher concentration of the dark brew made from spruce bark. The hides were soaked in the pits, and each increase in the concentration firmed up the texture and provided some colour. If you were dealing with fine calfskin, goatskin and sheepskin, that was the whole of the tanning process. Those types of leather had to remain soft and supple so they could be turned into bags or bridles.

If you’d like to hear more about the history of the tannery, please key in number 9. If you’d prefer to find out more about the different tanning processes, select numbers 10 to 14.

All depictions: © Gemeinde Fricklingen