DALLAS — Lisa Koloen hoped to see her daughter keep alive the family’s tannery but instead came to a hard realization. “Being a historic place doesn’t pay the bills,” says Koloen.
Muir & McDonald Co., the oldest of three remaining tanneries in the United States employing a traditional vegetable tanning method, will close its doors this summer after 144 years in the business. The tannery supplies leather to saddle makers in Louisiana and Texas and until now has defended its title as the oldest continuously running business in Polk County.
The vegetable method the tannery uses requires a four-month process that allows the tanner to start and end with one piece of hide, compared to other processes that can finish in hours. But the tannery kept with tradition, even until the very end.
The decision to close was a difficult five-year process, says Koloen, company president and the fourth generation of tanners at Muir. “The confusing and crazy part,” Koloen says, was that “the tannery had a lot of orders.” Despite demand, the rising cost of production for a small tannery operating in a world market combined with an unwieldy utility bill for the company’s 40,000-square-foot building forced the tannery to close down. “I love this business,” Koloen says. “This has been our life.”
Koloen worked at the tannery as a child, sweeping floors and painting fences. She remembers growing up and seeing the town’s businesses spring up around the tannery.
Koloen won’t be out of the leather industry for long. When she and her husband finish their current orders in the next few months, she’ll start with another vegetable-method tannery based in Pennsylvania, which has stayed afloat by employing more upgraded and progressive techniques.
— Eunice Lee
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