News and Event Updates from the Office of the Orange County Historian

Annual Reports Due
Message from the Office of the NYS State Historian:

Hello Historians,

As [we have reached} end of the year I would like to remind the local government historians in your county to send me a copy of their annual reports, which I will be reading and responding to.  They can be sent via mail to the address below or via email to the email address below.  Thank you and Happy Holidays!


Devin R. Lander

Please send your annual reports to:

New York State Historian
Office of State History
New York State Museum
3025 Cultural Education Center
Albany, New York 12230


A visit to Pergamena,
a centuries old tannery operation
By MJ Hanley-Goff
A walk around the Pergamena warehouse in Montgomery, NY is a step back in time. Rows upon rows of animal skins, of all kinds, are carefully laid on shelves, in piles and are in various stages of processing. Some will turn into leather, some into parchment, some will become covers for drums and books, some will be made into shoes, handbags, dog collars, and the list goes on. Pergamena -- Italian for "parchment" -- is a tanning business, and Jesse Meyer, co-owner with dad, Karl, and brother, Stephen, is providing this tour in a cold warehouse off of Montgomery's Route 211.
Jesse (l) hands his father, Karl, some new hides to work on.
It's cold not because of a heating malfunction, but on purpose since these skins require certain climate conditions as they age tanned. "People think that tanning means I work in a salon," Jesse says with a laugh. But in fact, he explains that the term "tanning" comes from the word "tannin," an ingredient found in trees, like oak and fir. Not to get too techy, but this tanning extract penetrates the skins so they remain durable and protected from decomposition. This is where we get our leather and suede, not to mention hundreds of other items and accessories. One item, native to the company's homeland, is the "lederhosen," a garment made for outdoor activities, like hunting and riding, but worn today mostly as a costume for Bavarian holidays.

Behind this plain fa├žade,

a century's old tanning technique continues

The first question off the top is "where do they get the skins?" From farms that raise cattle or goats, for example, the sorts of animals farmed for meat. The animals are skinned and the hides shipped to the Pergamena warehouse. For years, their big customers were piano and bowling shoe manufacturers, Jesse explains. "There's leather inside a piano to help with the smooth movement of the keys, and leather is also used in the bottom of bowling shoes to provide the gliding action."  A few examples on his overflowing desk are butter soft, and ready for the next phase. But, what?   These days, there are less traditional pianos being constructed, and the popularity of bowling has its ups and downs. The Meyer's job these days is coming up with new ways to use the skins, which, in turn, requires new ways to treat them,  so that their inventory becomes more diversified. Like any other business, he says, we can't fall back on just one or two products.
The fact that Pergamena is one of the last tanneries in the country, works in their favor. At one time, they received a call from Calvin Klein to provide leather for his home in Europe, so there is global recognition. "There are a few tanneries up in the Johnston-Gloversville area, but not very many," Jesse says. This business has remained in business over the last few decades because Karl, "kept his head down, made a few niche products, and it worked for the last fifty years, but it's time to reinvent new ways to use the product."

Karl operates the large drums

used in the tanning process.

Pergamena was founded by a Meyer ancestor around 1550 in Eisenburg, Germany, the country where the term "tanning" was born. "Tanna" -- German for "oak" or "fir" -- is named for the source of the chemical used to preserve animal skins. The business came to America, by way of Philadelphia in the 1820's, then moved to New Jersey, and in 1981, Karl brought it up to Orange County to consolidate the operation in a new building away from the gritty environment of urban New Jersey, and find a suitable location for his growing family. Father and sons, with employee, Joe Carmona, spend a good part of their day in layers of flannel shirts and woolen caps to work in the chilly warehouse, and perform back-breaking work to sand, buff, flatten the skins (with some very imposing machinery), then soak them in tubs, rotate them in large drums, and finally clip them taut onto racks. 
For historians, this is truly a fascinating process, to see how this century's old method of creating parchment, the product used by kings and queens to bestow land patents, or make grand proclamations like the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence. In fact, the County Clerk's office has two immense parchments dating back to the County's origins which grant permission for Orange County to be created.
This hide will dry and most likely will be used as parchment.
Animal skins destined to become parchment will be left untanned and clipped to a rack where they're stretched and left to dry, with the skin fibers "glued" together. They then can be handled and will last for a lifetime and beyond. What used to take months, now takes only a few days with modern techniques that the Meyer men continue to tweak as they make the process healthier than it was four hundred years ago. "We've eliminated the harsh metal chemicals that have been used recently, so the process is more human-friendly," Jesse explains.  
These hides are being prepared as book covers.
Appointments for free group tours are available. Two-day tanning workshops are also given throughout the year, so check their website for details.

Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff
Community Updates
Good News for
The Seward/Mapes Homestead in  Florida, NY

The Seward/Mapes Homestead Restoration Committee of  Florida presented the Village of Florida's governing Board with a $5,000 check toward the restoration of the S/M Homestead. 

As reported in the Goshen Independent, the Homestead presents a "rare opportunity to focus on the lives and accomplishments of two men deeply engaged in the American Civil War on different levels: William Henry Seward as Secretary of State in the Lincoln Administration, and William E. Mapes, as a Union Soldier in an illustrious volunteer regiment that fought in many battles from Manassa Gap to Appomattox."

Upcoming Events, Training & Conferences
AASLH Town Hall with John Dichtl and Bethany Hawkins
January 31, 2017, 3 PM

Join us on Facebook for an informal town hall: AASLH's John Dichtl and Bethany Hawkins will discuss AASLH's recent initiatives, short- and long-term goals, and the association's role in the field. Viewers will be able to ask questions at any time using the comment section.

Facebook Live, Free and Open to All

Museum Village to host series of 19th century winter exhibits
February through March 2017 

The series will feature 19th century winter items from the Museum's collection, and showcase the artistry, craftsmanship, and inventiveness of the makers.
Admission is free, and the exhibits will be on display from 12 noon to 4 pm. 

The remaining dates are February 18 - 19 and March 18 - 19.  (Visit to learn more about the upcoming displays.)  

Thomas Cole National Historic Site Catskill, NY

"Where American art was born."

National Park Service Announces their FEE-FREE days for 2017

Their ten fee-free days are:
January 16:          Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February 20:         Presidents Day
April 15-16:           National Park Week Weekend (#1)
April 22-23:           National Park Week Weekend (#2)
August 25:            National Park Service Birthday
September 30:      National Public Lands Day
November 11-12:  Veterans Day Weekend
Orange County Historian | Goshen, N.Y. |  845-545-7908 |  jyaun