Last summer the City of Pittsburgh on behalf of the H.J. Heinz Co. began
proceedings to acquire the site of the last wool pullery in the US. By
backing-out all federal funds (CDBG) for the parcel (one third of the total
project area), the City of Pittsburgh side-stepped Section 106. Through
persistence by the resource's owner and outside intervention, a mitigation
plan was developed to document the tangible and intangible elements of this
significant cultural resource. Last week, HAER architects were on site
doing their fieldwork for their component of the documentation and the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the following article this past Sunday (9
from the Post-Gazette Website
Pittsburgh Wool Co.'s factory: a run for posterity
Sunday, January 09, 2000
By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Standing in the middle of a paint-spattered wooden ladder, Christopher
Marston stretches a yellow metal tape measure along the bottom of a green,
funnel-shaped object attached to the ceiling.
"This is 1-6 and a quarter, the base of the hopper here," he says.
"1-6 and a quarter," repeats Tom Behrens, who is crouched over a sheet of
graph paper attached to a drawing board that rests on a pile of sheep pelts.
For the past week, Marston and Behrens, historical architects with the
Historic American Engineering Record, have been measuring and drawing the
paddlewheel pelt washers, wool dryers, leather-pickling drums and other
equipment inside the Pittsburgh Wool Co. building on River Avenue.
With the wool company's imminent relocation and the anticipated demolition
of its building to make way for an H.J. Heinz Co. expansion, Marston and
Behrens are recording the design and dimensions of the machines of a dying
The Pittsburgh Wool Co., incorporated in 1912 by William P. Lange and
Charles Kumer and now owned by Kumer's son, Roy, and grandson, Jeff, is the
last vestige of the city's once-thriving leather and tanning industry. The
HAER architects were hired by the Historical Society of Western
Pennsylvania, which has a $50,000 grant from the H.J. Heinz Co. Foundation
to document the workings of the wool company, where production has all but
ground to a halt.
On Friday morning, two men worked in the chilly building, trimming pelts
stacked on pallets.
But in Pittsburgh Wool's heyday, which ended in the early 1980s with the
decline of America's lamb-packing industry, sheep pelts by the hundreds of
thousands arrived from local butchers and from slaughterhouses in Chicago,
Minnesota, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Those with wool too short for "pulling" were salted (as a preservative) and
sent directly to tanneries. The longer pelts were washed and a depilatory
was applied to their skin. Once the chemical loosened the wool, the pelt was
draped over a wooden beam and the wool pulled off by hand.
"It's a process little changed since the 17th century," wrote historian
David Rotenstein in a 1997 article about Pittsburgh Wool in the Pittsburgh
"The pulled wool is sent to a dryer, and the bare skin is dropped from the
second floor, where the pulling takes place," Rotenstein wrote. "The skins
go through a hatch and into one of six revolving drums on the first floor,"
where they are rotated through several chemical treatments resulting in a
"pickled" lamb pelt ready for shipment to tanners in other countries.
Rotenstein, who is writing a book about the leather and tanning industry
here, also will write a report that will accompany Behrens and Marston's
drawings and be housed in the Library of Congress.
Since 1969, the Historic American Engineering Record, a program of the
National Park Service, has documented 33,000 factories, railroads, canals,
tunnels and other historic sites with ink-on-mylar measured drawings, a
written report and large-format photographs. At the Library of Congress, the
HAER documents are the second most used collection, after prints and
In the future, Behrens and Marston will create, with Jeff Kumer's help,
"process drawings" to show how the wool-pulling operation worked.
Without them, "Once Roy and Jeff are gone, who's going to explain how
wool-pulling operated?" Behrens said.
That responsibility has fallen to the Historical Society of Western
Pennsylvania, which has arranged for Argentine Productions to document the
industry on video. Sometime next month, Kumer will have the place up and
running again for one last time, for the cameras.
That footage will be used to produce a 10-minute video on Pittsburgh Wool,
which will be available for viewing in the archives department of the
Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. With up to four days
of shooting, there is also the potential for a longer documentary in the
The Historical Society, which owns and operates the history center, has
asked Rotenstein to write a report covering the history of the wool company,
its predecessors and its building, in the context of the North Side leather
and tanning industry.
Rotenstein's audiotape interviews with the Kumers, done over a three-year
period ending in August, also will go to the history center, transcribed,
fully indexed and accompanied by biographical essays on the Kumers.
The Historical Society will collect the company's business records for its
archives, books that Roy Kumer, 91, kept by hand in big ledger books for
"Then we'll select a group of artifacts that we feel capture important
moments in the process for the museum collection," chief curator Anne
Madarasz said. They are likely to include a depilatory brush, apron, grading
board and the wooden beam over which a pelt was draped as its wool was being
"Most of the machinery in the building is too large for us to preserve and
display, so I've been contacting other museums and institutions to see if
they're interested," Madarasz said. "We do have a small budget to help them
Although no exhibit on the wool company is planned, Madarasz said the
documentation and artifacts it generates could be used in a variety of ways
at the history center, including publications for a school-age or scholarly
audience, in a possible series of industrial heritage films, and in exhibits
about German immigrants and Pittsburgh industries.
All of the materials will be housed in the center's library and archives and
be available to researchers.
As for the Kumers, they expect to move in March to the nearby Monteverde
building, where they will continue to operate Pittsburgh Wool Co., exporting
lamb pelts to wool pullers in France and to tanneries in Turkey, Spain,
England, Morocco and Greece.
David S. Rotenstein, Ph.D., RPA
Columbia, SC 29201
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Phone: (803) 376-1442