Images from Brant Lake: The Tannery

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This is a story in stone.

In the middle of the 19th century Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, sailed on so-called coffin ships and landed in America. Some migrated to the area around Brant Lake and worked in the local tannery curing hides sent from western New York by train to Riverside where they were placed on horse drawn wagons for transport to the tannery, said to be the largest in New York State. The tanning enterprise was immortalized in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.

Hauling, skinning, curing, soaking, scraping off the hair and flesh was a man’s work—with one exception. Emeline Brace. To support herself, and a one-year-old baby, Emeline built a wooden box with straw as a mattress, mounted it on a sled pulled by a team of black horses and drove up the lake in the midst of winter to gather hemlock bark for tanning the hide. Departing before daybreak, Emeline loaded the sled with bark and  returned after dark. Her winter journeys became legendary in the North Country!

In 1881 tanning ceased and, over the decades, the tannery disintegrated—its location on Tannery Road a mound of bricks and cut stones. Only the chimney remained as a symbol of those who struggled to build this country.

In my early days at Brant Lake I often passed that chimney and watched teenagers scramble up the sides—ascending into a saga of Brant Lake that resonated with the echoes of a bygone era. The chimney was finally torn down in 1955.

And that is where this story in stone really begins.

What happened to the stones of the tannery? Stones can’t disappear. They remain an unswerving constant through time. However, the traveler on Tannery Road in the 21st-century can’t see any remnants of this beacon of 19th century Brant Lake. The Schroon River flows quietly beside Tannery Road, an American flag implanted on an island in one of the inlets. Beaver dams testify to a new generation of inhabitants, but the tannery? Gone?

Not entirely. Over the decades local residents gathered the bricks and stones for secondary use. Some of the stones found their way into walls to restrain cattle or to define boundaries. Others were used in the foundations of homes that still stand in the neighborhood. Look closely! With a discerning eye, you may see a brick from the tannery, a solitary brick that lacks a label yet yields an invisible imprint that reads:  “Irish settlers, The Dearslayer, leather.”

William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Time revolves in a perpetual circle. What was will be again. Only the design may change.

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