Tanbark Oak

Tanbark is a common under story tree of the redwood forest. At different times it has been both valued and treated as a weed. For centuries the acorns of the tanbark were a staple of the many North American Indians within the redwood belt. As early as 1814 Californians were using the bark of this oak for tanning hides. By the late nineteenth century large-scale harvesting of the tanbark was underway as consumer demand for inexpensive leather goods fueled a nationwide growth in the tanning industry.

Tanbark was harvested during the “peeling season” which lasted from May to July. Two men working together would “ring” a tanbark oak, scoring the tree through the bark at four foot intervals. In many instances the tree was cut down and the bark stripped leaving the trunk to rot. The bark was loaded on mules, wagons and later, trucks, and transported to waiting schooners or railroad cars for shipment to the tanneries of Monterey, Santa Clara and San Francisco.

Hank Simonson was kind enough to give to our club a very interesting booklet entitled, “Logging with Ox Teams – an Epoch in Ingenuity”. The booklet was typed using an old manual typewriter with typos and spelling mistakes. Flo, Hank’s widow, told us (in 2010) that she believed that Hank was given the booklet around 1960 and she thinks it was published by the Mendocino County Historical Society. It appears to have been written by Thomas 0. Moungovan. We have re-typed the booklet, annotated it and broken it into sections to fit it into the schema of our website. This excerpt from the booklet deals with Tan Bark Oak. Click the image right to read the whole book. You can also download pdf copies – click  here for a scanned copy of the original (1.9Mb), or  here for a smaller version (350Kb).

Tan bark was an industry in itself in the early days, tan oak contained more tannic acid than the bark of any other tree. In the early days tannic acid was es-sential for the tanning of leather.
Greenwood [http://mcmr.thornburns.com/history/towns/elk.htm] was the only operation that had its own plant to grind and extract the acid from the tan bark. They shipped the acid to San Francisco and Benicia. The other operations along the coast shipped the tan bark direct to the City and Be¬nicia by boat.
In San Francisco, the largest tannery, and the one to which most of the tan bark was shipped was at the foot of Army Street.

Tan bark camps were not connected with the logging camps. The camps were planned to open around the first of April. If the weather was cold, the opening of the camps was delayed until the weather was warmer. There was usually about three to four and a half months of good peeling weather. Peeling is only possible while the sap is coming up in the trees, so the peeler’s work is limited by the flow of the sap. The sap dries from the top, when the sap when the sap gets down to the last ring on the bottom the peeler’s work is ended, A ring of bark is four feet wide.

A tree with only two rings of bark, had the rings of bark removed, and the tree left standing. This was called “jay-hawking”. If no fire got into the area, these trees would heal over, and a new set of bark would grow. In about ten years, these trees would be large enough to cut down, and you would get as many as five good rings of bark from them.

The tan bark was packed out of the canyons by pack mules to a landing. Here it would be loaded on wagons and hauled to the coastal wharves or chutes.

Point Arena was a “free wharf”. Most of the wharves and chutes were “Company owned” and only those selling to the Company could use it. At Point Arena and other free ports, one paid “wharfage” and could use the wharf to ship to the City themselves.Click photo to see all pictures in the gallery

If the tanbark was good, average bark it was purchased by measurement, but if it were light, they would be apt to take it by weight. A cord of bark was purchased by the long ton. About 1914, the buyers became very particular, and would cull the bark so drastically that loading became difficult and the fan bark industry begin to decline.

4 photos of tanbark being cut.

Whisky Springs on Route 20 was a favorite stopping point for Tan Bark Oak collectors bringing their product to Fort Bragg

Peeling TanBark Oak at Age 11 in 1895

Were you working when you were age 11 to support your family? Warren Ormsby did. He worked a 12 hour shift 6 days a week in 100 degree heat peeling tanbark oak. Read the article right and you will get a firsthand insight to what it took to make a living peeling tanbark oak along the Mendocino Coast. This cannot have been the good old days.

Click the thumbnail right to read the article. A pdf copy can be downloaded  here.

In the early 1900’s harvesting and selling Tanoak bark was a major industry. The trees were not large and were often cleared from the land to create pasture. Tanoak bark has a strong yellow tannin acid in the bark which was used for tanning leather. If you want to see what it looks like there are a few small pieces in the Guest House Museum upper floor in Fort Bragg.

Peeling the bark from a Tanoak which has been felled

When the trees were small the bark was taken whilst the tree was still standing.

A small Tanoak bark tree showing the bark that has been cut/peeled off

The cut bark was dried and loaded onto mules to be carried to shipping points.

Mule team carrying Tanoak bark

Below are two wagons loaded with Tanoak bark waiting to be weighed at Cloverdale. From Cloverdale it would be shipped to processing plants in the Bay Area.

Two wagons loaded with Tanoak bark