Station: [8] The Tanbark

Bark tanning, bark mill, tanning pits ... time to pin down the term “tan” and its significance for the tanning trade. And what’s the connection with forests grown specifically for bark-peeling or harvesting tanstuff? Obviously tan, or tan-bark, has a lot to do with trees.

The bark of spruce or oak contains very high levels of tannic acid, so it was the first choice for tanning. Spruce bark was sourced from local forestry. The Mantz tannery obtained the more valuable oak bark from the southern or south-eastern slopes of the Kinzig Valley, and the side valleys of the Black Forest. In spring, the bark of selected trees was scored lengthwise along the trunk, using sharp knives known as “peelers”. A tool called a barking spud, which looks rather like a spoon, was then used to detach the bark, working from the bottom upwards. At the top, the strips of bark were left hanging from the trunk and dried out in the open air. In summer, the dried bark strips were harvested. The trees were felled and turned into firewood. The tree stump with the root was left in the ground.

But that wasn’t the end of the trees grown for their bark. The thin twigs that accumulated when they were felled were burnt on site, and the ash served as fertiliser for the rye or oats that were subsequently sown. When they were harvested in turn, the straw was particularly sought after for thatching, because the stalks were especially thick and strong. In the following year, the soil was still good enough to grow a crop of potatoes. After that, the land was turned to grazing. Gradually, the oak trees grew back from the rootstock. Roughly 20 years later, they were ready for peeling again, the bark was harvested and the cycle began anew.

In the second half of the 19th century, these oak forests, grown for their bark, were very important economically, because they could be put to so many uses. Cheaper tanning agents only appeared in the early 20th century, and the tanbark forests vanished. The villages that specialised in this type of forestry fell into poverty, and their residents had to look for work elsewhere.

All depictions: © Gemeinde Fricklingen