Here in the village square, a sculpture in memory of Paul Mantz graces the water feature. This piece was created in 1993 by the sculptor Kurt Grabert. It shows the tanner at his fleshing beam, working on an animal skin. There’s a fur lying at his feet. So the memorial features two products of the tanner's trade: leather and furs. Paul Mantz died in 2013 as the last of Leustetten’s tanners.
That this water feature stands in the village square is no coincidence. Virtually everything you need to operate a tannery can be found right here, all in one place. First and foremost, the water. Without water, there could be no tanning process. Do you see the footpath by the inn, Gasthaus Löwen? That’s where the village stream used to run, out in the open rather than confined in a pipe. At the northern edge of the village, near the sawmill, the village stream was dammed by a weir called the Fallenstock. There, the water could be diverted into an open channel, or mill race, to drive the water wheel of the local bark mill, the Lohmühle.
The water from the village stream not only powered the tannery, but also a flour mill, a sawmill and a gypsum mill. It’s quite remarkable to think what the hydro energy supplied by such a small stream could achieve!
At the bark mill further upstream, hydro energy was used to chop up the bark for tanning. The other steps in the process of turning raw animal hide into tough leather were also carried out at the bark mill, many of them with the help of hydro energy.
But before you make your way up there, take a look around the village square and imagine eleven round holes in the ground. This is where the tanning pits, or "Lohgruben", used to be. They were dug out and made safe when the village square was redesigned.
The prepared cattle hides were layered into these timber-lined pits. They were left there for at least four months, covered in the tan – that is, ground bark – and water. The tannin in the bark leached into the water, gradually transforming the hides into leather. Piling the hides into the pits in layers was a complicated process. Each pit was about 2.2 metres in diameter – so, a little over seven feet across. That’s roughly the same size as a cowhide. Each pit held between 30 and 40 hides, which were laid one on top of the other, each covered with three to four centimetres of fresh tan – around an inch and a half of ground bark. The whole was then topped off with 12 centimetres of old tan – five or so inches. Then the pit was filled with water and covered with planks, which were weighted down with rocks.
After about four months, the hides needed to be re-stacked. The skins from the uppermost, or first layer, were placed a little further down. The tan was partially exchanged for fresh ground bark and the whole things re-layered. This process was repeated as required, until all the hides had been completely transformed into leather. The hides dripped and stank. It was hard work, and nasty, too.
Patrick Süskind gives a vivid description of the tough and hazardous life of a tanner's assistant in his novel "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer". At the age of 8, the boy Grenouille is handed over to a tanner called Grimal as an apprentice by his foster mother. From that age on, he carries out all the work that is required.
If you’d like to find out more about the preparation of hard leather, please access number 12.
All depictions: © Gemeinde Fricklingen