One of the old-time industries in Anderson Valley and the North Coast was peeling and shipping of tan bark. It was a big thing in its day and created a living for many people.
The tan oak as we know it was also called chestnut oak, probably a hangover from the east where there was a chestnut oak that was also harvested for its tan bark, or tannic acid. Later on a wood in South America was found to be rich in tannin and the market for California tan bark began to decline.
Our first knowledge of tan bark was about 1900 in Mendocino. A lot of bark was shedded there along the track that ran from the mill to the Point, waiting shipment to the City by boat. That bark probably came from as far back as Comptche or further, and from the logging woods on the Big River watershed.
The custom then in general was to peel the bark out ahead of the logging, as following the big timber would wreck the tan oaks. A great tonnage of bark was also harvested in the Willits area ahead of the logging by the Casper and Union lumber companies. Very much bark was taken out of that area by the Irvin and Muir Company and there was a village there to the west of Willits named Irmulco. They had herds of pack mules and teams and hired teamsters from all over the country during the big bark season.
Some Anderson Valley boys went over there for the seasonal jobs, packing or peeling or driving team or other work. It was a very big operation and it lasted until the bark industry played out. That bark was shipped to Santa Rosa and to many other tanneries.
There was a well-known tannery in Ukiah out on Low Gap Road. It smelled pretty strong and people held their noses when they drove by. Modern noses are much more sensitive and a tannery with have no chance of being approved nowadays. That tannery was later converted into a hide and tallow business run by Harvey Thoren who as a young man made a name for himself by walking all the way to the East Coast in a marathon.
Another market for tan bark was the Levin tannery in Santa Rosa run by Mr. Levin himself, a well-known and highly respected man. Most of the Anderson Valley bark went there. It took great stacks of bark to run a tannery for a year. One time I was in Mr. Levin's office and word had come out that he needed some roofing and several of the boys came in to try to make a sale. Each one told about the many good qualities of his product, and after Mr. Levin heard all the sales pitches he said, “Well, you boys all got it, ain't you?”
One time when I left he said, “If you see that that Fat Clow (W.A.) up there tell him you were talking to a man who said he was lazy.” Later on I told Fat what a man had said and fat replied, “Yes, and the old cuss pays his bills.” “Fat's” energy was well-known and was evidently a joke between them.
Anyway, spring would come and as the sap rose preparations would be made for the summer bark jobs. There were some landowners who would get out their own bark, but mostly it was contractors who had the equipment and pack mules and camping outfits. Pa Sanders was one who got out a patch of bark every year — cords of it. He had six pack mules and Charlie Sanders and Jim McNeill would be available for teaming and other work. Then there were peelers he could get and others to swamp the peeled bark.
When the peelers went through the bark woods they only peeled and the bark lay pretty much where it fell. After it lay in the sun for a few days or a week or so pieces would curl up which is how they got the name “curl.”
The swampers would follow behind and locate the main trail up out of the woods to where the wagons would come to load. That place was called a landing which would typically be on the top of a ridge or a mountain. Then smaller trails would branch off and lead to where the bark had been put into convenient piles for loading onto the mules. The side trails would not be much as they would only be used for a few loads, so they were just wide enough for the mules feet and of course the brush or limbs would all be cut back away.
More pains would be taken with main trails as they would be used for the whole job and after a few trips they would get well worn in. The important part about all the trails was to cut all the brush and limbs out of the way of the pack mules because if they hit a tree they it might even throw the mule down or cause him to lose his load. Mules are very good at dodging trees. They took their time and could come out of the woods with tremendous loads.
When the operator had found his bark and made the deal with the owner he would set up his camp. This was quite an operation as there were all kinds of things necessary. Food for the men, hay for the animals, and all the tools. This would be done by May when the sap would begin to rise in the bark and peel off readily.
First there would be the peeling. This was done by ringing the tree at ground level and again about four feet above. Then the “curl” would be split down and if it was peeling off properly it could be loosened by prying with the axe and often a good hard yank with the hands tear it loose. The curls were left as they fell until they dried and curled up. The tree would be chopped down and the rest of the bark removed in four lengths. The wood was left to rot or to be burned later. Sometimes an effort would be made to convert the land into sheep range but it was never very successful as the tan oak is a very persistent sprouter.
While this peeling was being done by the crew, the boss would look out his trails and have them built so that as soon as the bark was dry the swamping (piling) and packing could begin. The pack saddles were equipped with hooks to hold the bark and there was a special contraction of rope and a strap to bind it on. It had to be well loaded and tied down or the mules would get smart and throw the whole load off.
When the mule was loaded in the woods he would start up the trail taking it easy and getting a bite here and there along the way. When he got out to the bark pile he would turn tail to pile and wait to be unloaded.
A good pack mule has always been a pearl of great price down through the ages. In the woods he had to know his business (as everywhere) and they seldom got into trouble. Some of the wiser ones knew all the tricks and could cause the packer plenty of grief. He might out do them some times, but he would never outwit one.