(A Business at the South End of Main Street)

The Hemlock Tree

Chemicals protect plants against destructive insects. Oak, hemlock, and chestnut trees have tannin, a bitter chemical which protects the trees. Since ancient times people have extracted the tannin from trees and used it to preserve leather.

The Tanning Industry in Early Days

People of China used such tannin over three thousand years ago. Leather objects have been found in Egyptian tombs. People built places called tanneries to which they brought hides and materials containing tannin. There, workers processed the hides and made leather.

The first tannery in America was built in 1630 in Virginia.

Early Wisconsin

Early lumbermen of northern Wisconsin were interested in the fine wood they could obtain from the white pine tree. Because the bark of the hemlock tree was a very good source of tannin, others were eager to cut as many of these abundant, 60 to 100 foot trees as possible in order to make money. In northern Wisconsin in 1907 there was more hemlock cut than pine.

Taylor County Tanneries

The Medford Tanning Company

People saw the potential for building tanneries. The Taylor County Star and News stated on December 3, 1881, that "Mr. John Logan, landlord of the Forest House, informs us that in the spring he will erect a tannery in this village, just south of the company barn. Who says that Medford has not a bright future."

On November 17, 1883, The Star and News stated this about the Nystrum Tannery. "The tannery is getting ready for business." It indicated that the engine and boiler for Nystrum's tannery had arrived and would soon be in place in the tannery. The plant had a tubular boiler with 30 flues. The engine was "7 1/2 x 14 inches, 16 h. p." It further stated that "Mr. Nystrum deserves credit for his energy in pushing this enterprise to a successful issue, and we do not doubt that he will receive a handsome profit from the business." By December 1, 1883 the following information was given in the newspaper. "The Medford tannery is nearly ready for business now, and the grinding of bark will be commenced in a few days. The stock of hides now on hand will be put to soak next week, after which the regular routine of work will be carried on. Of course the tannery is not yet complete in all its appointments, and, very likely, will not be for a year, as Mr. Nystrum has not the capital to get all the latest and most approved apparatus and machinery, but it is his intention to commence with what capital he now has, and, as fast as the business will warrant, to add new improvements. Mr. N. is a practical tanner, a good economical business man and fair dealer. His enterprise is one that has long been needed here, as it supplies a home market for bark, hides, etc. He is deserving of the heartiest support by our business men, and it is sincerely hoped that he will get that support in a substantial way. "

The Shaw Family and Their Tanneries

Delos Shaw

Fayette, Thaxter, Delos, and Fred Shaw were from Boston, Massachusetts. They looked at the fine stands of hemlock trees and decided to build a tannery in Medford. By April 1890, the tannery was producing more than two tons of tanned leather each day. Thaxter, Delos, and Fred Shaw moved to Medford and built beautiful homes on the hill east of the factory.

Yard Crew of the Shaw Tannery in Medford, Wisconsin in 1895

Another tannery was built by the Shaws at Perkinstown in 1892.

Beam and yard crew in Shaw Tannery

United States Leather Company Tannery, Medford, Wisconsin

Hauling Hemlock Bark

In 1893, Shaws built a tannery on the north side of Rib Lake. Men peeled bark from the hemlock trees in summer. In winter the bark was hauled to the tannery. On January 20, 1894, a load of hemlock bark, weighing 21,720 pounds net, was hauled six miles to Perkinstown by a two horse team, and at Rib Lake, a four horse team pulled in one weighing 23,3000 pounds net.

Dangerous Work

Work was dangerous. While hauling bark for the Shaw Company to their tannery at Rib Lake, in the winter of 1895-96, John Nelson of Little Black, accidentally slipped off his big ten cord load that he was hauling. It ran over his legs crusing them terribly. Dr. T. M. Miller of Medford attended him. With the help of the doctor and many friends John eventually was able to walk again.

Joe Kuse, father of Walter Kuse, worked in the Medford tannery. He and others would come home from work with red, stained hands. At an early age he died of cancer. Friends and relatives often wondered if work with the chemicals had been hazardous to his health.


Carloads of dry hides were shipped here from South America. Some were also brought in from the Chicago stock yards. The dry hides were hauled to the tanneries by wagon and four horse teams. The finished product was brought back the same way.

Hemlock Lumber

Bark was the portion of the tree which tannery operators desired. Hemlock logs remained in the woods and had to be burned by settlers desiring to clear enough land for farming. The moist logs had to be piled high in order to get them dry enough to burn.

Some settlers used hemlock logs to build their cabins. Joachim and Eleonore Kuse used hemlock logs to build their home on Wheelock Street. They chinked the cracks between the logs with mud to keep out the wind.

Chinking between hemlock logs in home of Joachim and Eleonore Kuse

Some people realized that much timber was being wasted. In 1889, Bert Gearhart bought a saw mill in Chelsea. He was the first to specialize in hemlock. At first he sawed only long, heavy stuff for the Wisconsin Central Company, but gradually built up a market for all kinds of hemlock lumber which, at first, builders and carpenters would have nothing to do with, when they could get the pine they wanted; it was less slivery, and not so hard on saws and planes.

Soon after the Shaws started their tanneries here, they and the lumbermen began thinking of some way to increase the use of hemlock lumber. The Shaws had bought considerable cut over land just for the hemlock bark, and thousands of feet of hemlock timber lay in the woods and rotted after the bark had been peeled off. In 1895, a company had been organized to advertise hemlock, and to help to find markets for it.

Picture of Winchester Hotel

The Winchester Hotel was built near the south end of Main Street and finished entirely with hemlock to show what could actually be done with that lumber. Fred Ward an experienced hotel man, was put in charge, and for a dozen years it was quite a success. Mr. and Mrs. Fayette Shaw came from Boston, and took a suite of rooms there, but they found that they missed very much, city life, and stayed only a year.

View from the Winchester Hotel

Then, more and more traveling men began stopping at hotels down town to avoid carrying their luggage up the big hill; by 1912, it had become a losing proposition.

In 1920, it was sold to District Superintendent Kundert who had it razed, the lumber and material being sent to build churches and parsonages all over northern Wisconsin. The local Methodist church was built with lumber from that hotel. Rev. Alderson, A. J. Latton, L. D. Russell and Ross Davis were the building committee.

A Wooden Sidewalk on Medford's Main Street

Most of the sidewalks in early Medford were made of hemlock planks. In later years single planks would break and the sidewalks became unsafe. Lumber prices went up and people replaced the wooden walks with cement.

The Baseball Team

The Shaws brought their interest in baseball to the community. Delos and Fred Shaw were both good ball players. The former was the first pitcher here who could throw a curved ball. Few of the fans here then would believe that it could be done until they tried to bat his offerings.

Letitia Shaw and Leila Winchester - Early Medford Young People

Life for the Shaws was good. Delos Shaw and Miss Ida Krauth were married, and moved into the fine new residence on 'the Hill,' now the Luepke home, where they resided about twenty years.

Fine horses were owned by the people associated with the Shaw Tannery in Rib Lake. When the Rib Lake people used to come to Medford in the early days, they were the best equipped, best dressed and had the finest horses, to be seen. In his history, Guy Wallace has this to say about the string of horses in the Shaw barn. "There were Paddy and Maud, J. J. Kennedy's team, Lil and Gip that Hughie McMillan used to drive, the Buckskins driven by Ike Balinger, Billy Pope's team, Chub and John, the big Ron and the Busbey mare, and Old Joe, the greatest in all the world according to Walter Patrick. Then there was Pat's driver Dick. He had Satan tied up in a fine brown coat, and did everything but hook. He'd kill any horse on the road, and come in ready for another fight. Old Blind Tom would hold an evener with the best of them, as would Big Ned."

Not all was easy. In 1896, the tannery in Perkinstown burned and that town became a sort of deserted village for a period of time.

Then new discoveries in chemistry changed their fortunes. New methods of tanning were discovered by the U. S. Leather Company and the Shaws were forced to sell. They could not compete with the cheaper methods. The Shaws spent most of their remaining days in the city of Phillips, Wisconsin.

Hemlock Trees


Latton, A. Reminiscences and anecdotes of early Taylor County.

Photographs by early photographers Zeit and Dake.

Taylor County Star and News

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