Welcome to the Time Machine
There were once over forty leather tanneries in Chicago. With stockyards providing ample material, the city easily sustained these businesses until it became much cheaper to outsource to companies who weren’t hell-bent on making the most spectacular leather you’ll ever see. In 2006, Horween Leather Co. became the only leather tannery in Illinois. Today, there are less than a dozen in the U.S.A.
I have to admit, when you see the block-long factory, with barely any markings, there is an old-world credibility. The sort of place where you’d walk in and meet a man in an expertly-tailored three-piece suit, smoking an unfiltered Lucky Strike… And he’d say something about how he just met, “The best dame I ever saw.”
This notion wasn’t far off. Horween is a time machine. A time machine whipping you back to 1897, where they first developed a way to split hides sideways, which explains the term top-grain leather, or how at one point, the entire factory was connected by belts, spinning and humming between five floors.
The place is startling and stunning, but the most poignant and humbling scenes replaying in my mind are those of individuals who have a knack for their position. For example, Qui, who has been at Horween for 24 years, looks over every single hide and decides what it will become. A football for the NFL? A baseball mitt for Rawlings? Shell cordovan for Alden? It’s nuts. Literally hours on end, every day, making the right call. For 24 years.
Or, Eddie and John, who shave every hide down to the right thickness by depressing a pedal that Phil Kalas from Horween claims is “so insanely hard to use” that each man’s calf must be “a rock.” Perhaps he didn’t mean this metaphorically, but it surely begs a question I’ve long asked: in the wake of innovation and creation, who can carry out the implementation?
Riding the waves of these men and women, 145 who report to work daily, to perform the exact same task, with pride, Horween stands with an ever-growing amount folks who intend to make their money count. In a world of cheap, quick and “who cares,” here stands a lot of folks who reply, “We do.”
Thanks to Horween.