Thickest Skin in Illinois: The Lone Leather Tanner...

Thickest Skin in Illinois: The Lone Leather Tannery

A sharp smell immediately hits you as you walk through the shabby wooden door on the North Elston Avenue entrance of Horween Leather Company. The woodsy, smoke- and salt-infused fragrance impregnates the small, outdated waiting room that lies one flight above the street.

One hundred years ago there were 30 to 40 competitors on the same block as Horween Leather Co. Tanneries are businesses that turn animal hides into leather. The tannery district was a natural extension of Chicago’s famous stockyards, and the tannery buildings lined the North Elston branch of the Chicago River. Waste from the tanneries during this period was dumped into the river, polluting the ecosystem with lasting environmental ramifications. Traces of its toxicity appear in reports to this day. But the histories of each factory in the tannery district slowly disappeared as the stockyards declined. New businesses moved in, and the unassuming facades of the original tanneries go unnoticed. Today Horween Leather remains the only tannery in Illinois.

The entire building seems to have been frozen in time. The ashtray in the vinyl wood paneled waiting room remains — unused but not abandoned. A woman pulls back acrylic plastic doors, the same doors you would find checking in to an appointment at a doctor’s office, and yells down the hall to tell Nick Horween, the vice president of Horween Leather Co., that his 11 o’clock appointment is here.

Nick Horween sits at his great-grandfather's desk, looking at the giant marlin displayed on the dark wood-plated wall. (Sarah Julien, 14 East)

Nick Horween at his great-grandfather’s desk. (Sarah Julien, 14 East)

Nick Horween appears in the doorway, cheerful and energized, drinking coffee out of an Intelligentsia mug. He leads me down a short well-lit hallway to his office. Nick makes light of the smell along the way and said, “When I come in the front door, it has that unique leathery smell. It still gets me, even after all these years.”

The walls of his office are covered in memorabilia, family photographs and scraps of leather. A photograph of Nick as a toddler standing in the middle of the factory floor with his grandfather and father behind him captures my attention. Nick comments that the earliest memory he has of his family’s leather factory are the distinct smells. Not just the musty smell of leather and the treatment chemicals, but of his family’s and work families’ old habit of smoking tobacco.

“Everyone was always smoking,” Nick said. “Never around me, but as I entered the room there was always a butt that was being put out in the ashtray.” The smell of cigarettes mixed with the leather comforts Nick. The original scent that has been encapsulated in fragrances and aromatic candles and marketed in big department stores has been in the walls of the leather factory parallel to the west branch of the river all along.

Growing Pains

As a high school student, Nick worked in the factory during the summers. “The employees that were there when I was growing up, some who are still here, gave off such great energy,” said Nick. “I loved how engaged and involved we are with each other.”

When Nick occupied his office and fulfilled the family legacy there were two stipulations. One, the gigantic fish that his grandfather caught deep-sea fishing was staying on the wall. Two, the desk that was his great-grandfather’s – with the broken drawer and cracked wood – was not leaving the room. Tradition runs deep, and the office filled with original formula books and accounting ledgers acts as an archive of its own.

“It has been an interesting challenge, being a manager here,” said Nick. “I now have to try and be an effective manager to someone who has been working here longer than I have been alive. There is no way I could ever have the experience that they have, so it has been a collaborative thing — the vibe of the community.”

John Culliton, head of U.S. global solutions, has been working with Horween Leather Co. since 1991. “Nick was just six or seven, somewhere around that age, when I first started working with the Horweens,” said Culliton. “I have a lot of respect for what Nick has experienced — let me tell you, it isn’t easy to just step into a family business role that can feel choking. My own father worked here for 47 years. If he hadn’t done his own thing before deciding to work with us, he would never have the perspective he brings to the business today.”

When asked if Nick felt a certain responsibility to fill the role that seemed predestined from birth, he responds with casual candor. He says, “To be honest, I always knew I would try it. I wasn’t sure if I would end up here for long or not, but I was lucky that my father and grandfather always said that they would support me in whatever I do.”

Arnold ‘Skip’ Horween III, president of Horween Leather Co. and Nick’s father, said, “I am so proud to be able to work with my son by my side every day, but I didn’t always think this would be the set-up.”

Free Agent

Nick went to The University of Vermont to study business, but after graduation he wasn’t ready to jump straight into the family business. Instead, he launched his own at-home cooking service, The Dish’s Dish in New York. The service, now re-named The Culinistas, provides a private-chef experience and a full week’s dishes with only one day of preparation in the kitchen.

Nick parted ways with his business partner in 2008 after creative differences and left New York City for his hometown of Chicago.

“I never put pressure on Nick that he had to work at HLC because I knew what it felt like — I had three generations of men working in this same factory come before me. It had to be his decision or no one would have been happy, or successful for that matter,” said Skip.

Nick first worked in the factory by taking sales calls. “I didn’t really know much about anything. New customers would call, people with questions. I would have to say that I had no idea and I will call you back. It was pretty nerve-racking, but I learned a lot of things that way,” said Nick.

Nick’s crash course of the logistics of the business came down to knowing the ins-and-outs of animal hides— the bread and butter of the company, so to speak.

Nick had to learn leather.

The Technique

Horween uses traditional, old-world techniques to create a range of handmade leathers. Over the company’s 100 years, the approach and formulas are almost the same set of steps Isidoro Horween, the founder of the company, took to transform the raw animal hides into wearable and lasting leather goods when the tannery opened in 1905.

A quote from Isidore hidden in the disarray of boxes was recovered by Nick, and it tells the founders’ original philosophy that holds true to today. It reads, “We should take the best of everything; the best hides, the best oils, the best dyes and finishes — then we do whatever it takes to make that leather the best. The price goes on last, and if we cannot sell it for what it is worth, we should not make that leather.”

The tannery works with both bovine and equine hides. They only source equine (horse) and bovine (cattle) hides as a by-product of the food industry, and upon request, will provide a full history of where each order of hides was sourced. In the United States, the ban on horse slaughter makes buying domestic equine hides impossible and illegal. The availability to purchase the hides from Europe and Quebec can vary due to a limited source and a growing demand. When it is easier to buy, the company will buy the hides in large orders to squirrel away for the times when the market is starved.

Transparency is an important aspect that Horween is intent on providing its customers. Horween Leather Co.’s tanning glossary is extensive, but their signature leathers are Chromexcel, Genuine Shell Cordovan, Essex, Baseball Glove and Football. The quickest turnaround for a leather is a minimum of two weeks.

Horween Leather Co. is the only tannery in the United States to make Genuine Shell Cordovan—an equine leather that takes at least six months to cure.

On the day of my factory tour, the making of Chromexcel belts was the process that we followed. Learning the journey each hide takes to become the material that holds your pants in place from dragging on the ground is a jarring experience of the senses, and to be frank, elicits an unsettling discomfort in deciphering one’s own ethical compass.

The Hide

Bovine and equine leather hides are stacked on pallets and tied together with plastic string, the same way a stack of newspapers is packaged when ready for delivery.

Before the hides can be de-haired, they are “sided,” or cut into two because the factory only runs halves. They are then transported by a forklift to large vats filled with chemicals that burn the animal hair down to the follicle, an acidic process that leaves the leather smooth as a baby’s bum and hair free.

Piles of dark hides not yet de-haired in the factory. (Sarah Julien, 14 East)

Hides not yet de-haired. (Sarah Julien, 14 East)

The solution is one of the few modern technical updates that Horween has tweaked from the original recipe. “Trust me, my dad fought me on keeping it the same, but it was the one area where the amount of time saved was worth the change,” said Nick.

Once the hides have gone into the ‘dehairing’ process, the product has become perishable, and the following steps must be completed within a week. The mixers are limed, rinsed and washed, and all of the water that the factory uses is treated in-house by their EPA-approved and City of Chicago-monitored effluent treatment plan before being flushed from the factory.

An interesting anecdote that was told during the tour on the factory floor, was that animal hair is one of the most popular forms of protein on the market today.  The beauty and health collagen peptide powder that claims to be an elixir for strong and healthy skin, hair and nails comes from the hide of a horse or cattle —oh, if only Instagram influencers knew what was really in the powdered substance they are adding to their smoothies.

Moving on.

Next, the hides are placed on silver beds in a very shallow pool of boiling liquids. The boiling process allows the fats to come to the surface, ensuring the longevity of the leather and aiding the drying process.

The cow hides (or more accurately steer hides) are wrung through a “fleshing machine” that detaches the excess fat that was brought to the surface during the soaking process and deposits the substance in a large catch-all bin. At this point in the tour, it is hard to hide my body’s physical reaction of gagging.

Moving on.

The next step in the tanning process is the preservation process, which can change depending on which leather is being tanned and for what purpose. For the Chromexcel, the leather produced in the highest volume, the preservation process continues by baking and pickling the hides in a chrome salt bath. It is important to note that from here on, the details are specific to Chromexcel leather only, each of the other leathers in the glossary have a process of their own.

“It is a balancing act in a lot of ways,” said Nick. For one week, Monday morning to Friday evening, the temperature conditions and pH levels have to be carefully watched — it is basically glorified babysitting.

After the chrome salt bath, the leather hides have transformed into what they call around the factory ‘wet blues.’ The name is descriptive of the pale, dusty blue color of the skin, a shocking contrast to the lifeless, hairy hides they once were when they entered the factory.

Leather hides are treated with the secret recipe of tree bark extracts and natural agents that combines to create a vegetable liquor to impart the heavily vegetable ‘re-tannage.’ Now the hides move to ‘hot stuffing.’ A term Nick defines as an “impregnation of the hides with oils, waxes and greases like beef tallow or beeswax.” The reasoning behind using these waxes is because they are responsible for the ‘pull-up’ of the leather.

By this point in the tour, the vocabulary lent itself to a familiarization with the trade, but the words outside of the factory had no contextual meaning. ‘Pull-up’ as in the exercise of lifting your upper body using your bicep muscles to have your chin rest above the bar? Huh? He quickly realized my confused facial contortions and translated that a pull-up “is the technique used to lighten the leather,” said Nick.

Moving on.

Three coats of aniline finish are added by hand before the drying process begins. The Chromexcel hides are hung one after the other on hooks, and are left to air dry. If one is over 5’10 and is not careful walking through this section, a hook could easily catch the top of the head.

Leather is pasted onto large glass or ceramic plates to give the hide stretch.

Leather is pasted onto large glass or ceramic plates to give the hide stretch. (Sarah Julien, 14 East)

“Air drying is actually not the most economical way to dry the leather because it takes the longest and you lose around 25 percent of the yield to shrinkage,” said Nick. “But we have never been the company to cut corners for a higher profit—it’s probably why we are one of the only guys left in the business.”

Toggled air drying is not the only method that the tannery uses to dry out hides. They also paste leather onto large glass or ceramic plates to yield a leather that has little stretch. A coat of neatsfoot oil, a deep conditioning and preserving agent, is massaged into the grain, and the hide is finally ready to leave Horween Leather Co.’s hands.

After the tour ended, loud alarms – blaring and screeching in the same tone of a fire alarm – sounded. It was time for lunch. Nick led me to the break room, introducing me to the men who had become experts at the art of crafting Horween Leather. Nick has become fluent in the leather terminology and logistics, but he was not the leather artisan that his skilled employees had become. Back in his office, he revealed that his gifts are in another realm altogether.

Social Ingenuity

Photographs on Horween’s social media presence, blog and online website illustrates the leather process with the use of little to no words. Nick Horween created the social media accounts and has managed the business collaborations since 2008. The aesthetic that he has chosen tells a story.

“Back in 2008, Nick was just learning to keep his head above water,” said Culliton. “Once he got the lay of the land, though, the ideas started pouring out.”

The website features images that focus on the craftsmanship that goes in to each piece of leather. The family-run lineage and emphasis on the ‘craft’ is a narrative that brands such as Makers Mark utilize to create a sense of appreciation for their longer manufacturing process — one is buying into a brand that cannot be reproduced overnight.

“It is a really easy job because I don’t have to fake anything. We have been in this building since 1920. It is so visually interesting already that I don’t need to try to make stuff seem more interesting,” said Nick. “I just try to make the social media feel like it does here.”

Over forty percent of Horween Leather Company’s business comes from sports related relationships with the NBA, Spalding and Rawlings. The other sixty percent of their business comes out of partnerships and collaborations with American brands such as Frye, Vans, 319, Fitbit and Chicago-based Motorola and Dearborn Denim & Apparel.

“Most of our clients do not mention our leather as a collaboration, so when they do make a capsule collection naming Horween Leather Co., it is an honor,” said Nick.

Brand partnerships are a two-way street. Many of the companies they work with have been long-term relationships, such as Spalding and Rawling. With Nick’s branding abilities, he has introduced a wider range of clientele that complement the handcrafted legacy that Horween Leather Co. carries. An inspiration board on the wall beside Nick’s desk features images and motifs such as leather samples and a photograph of Brooklyn Nets player Julius Erving.

“I gravitate towards things I like,” said Nick. “I call them my passion projects.” One of the more recent passion projects includes partnering with the Chicago-born denim brand, Dearborn Denim & Apparel.

Horween Leather Co. provides the leather tag that is placed on the back of each pair of Dearborn Denim. They also partnered with each other to create a Dark Brown Havana Belt ($40) using Chromexcel leather and a raw hem. The belt’s dimensions fit perfectly within the denim’s loop holes, and even features screws that can easily loosen to exchange belt buckles.

Kaleb Sullivan, head of retail operations at Dearborn Denim, says, “We actually came to Horween and asked if they would want to work with us. They have such an established brand and integrity that is tied to Chicago, and that is exactly the type of companies we want to be associated with.”

Dearborn Denim & Apparel was established in 2016 with the philosophy of building a comfortable and affordable apparel line that sews, cuts and crafts everything in Chicago and only uses materials from the United States.

The brick and red-accented building front of Horween Leather Co.

Horween Leather Co. (Sarah Julien, 14 East)

While Dearborn Denim may have come to Horween Leather Co. first, the partnership made sense for both parties involved. “It was an easy sell,” says Nick. “We have offers come in everyday from companies, big and small, asking to work with us. At the end of the day, we want to attach our name with companies we not only have a good relationship with but actually like.”  

Dearborn Denim & Apparel is only one of many smaller companies Horween Leather Co. has started doing business with since Nick has come on board. He downplays his role of modernizing the five-generation family-owned leather tannery. He is subdued in his boasting because his mentality is that quickness does not equate to quality, and their business is only thriving if there is a demand that needs to be met.

Horween lays back in the green-lined chair with a piece of hide straight from the factory floor strewn over the seat. He untucks his hands from the front pocket of his black sweater and places one hand on his great grandfather’s desk. He looks around the office that his father occupied before him and his grandfather occupied before his father and says, “It makes it a lot easier when I did come back because I am here because I like it.”

One tannery remains. Is the Horween family’s famous leather recipe simply the best? Maybe, but I like to think Horween Leather Co. is still tanning because the soul of Chicago just couldn’t bear the death of another industry that is such an integral part of its identify.  


Header photo: Sarah Julien, 14 East.