Sam Shumate Special to the Post
November 12, 2013
When I was a very young boy, somewhere in the late 1940s, my family visited the Weaver brothers, George and Ned, who lived in a house located behind Weaver’s Garage/Tree Farm Office in Smethport.
While the grown-ups visited, I went exploring down by the creek. There I discovered a large area covered with concrete pillars and slabs. Being a curious youngster, I returned to the house and interrupted their conversation with my questions.
“What you saw down there is the foundation of Ashe County’s first industrial plant,” George told me. “The Smethport Extract Company came here from Smethport, Pa., and left its name and the concrete foundations you were playing on.
The Smethport Extract Company came in on the heels of the railroad around 1914. The plant eventually covered around five acres with its own siding and yard engine. Tannic acid was extracted from chestnut wood for tanning leather. Chestnut trees were plentiful at that time and leather was a widely-used commodity. The plant also purchased and shipped chestnut oak bark for the tanning industry.
At the peak of production, the plant operated three shifts of around 90 men. This was an economic boost to Ashe County. Almost three hundred men worked directly in the plant; however, many more harvested and sold the wood and bark, a welcome boost to their family’s incomes.
Production declined along with the timber industry. By 1920, the plant was dismantled and shipped to Helen, Ga., by rail. Some of the employees followed the plant while others went to Damascus, Va., where a similar extract plant operated.
The chestnut blight eventually destroyed the trees so prolific in our area. Even so, the dead wood was still harvested and sold for “extract.”
W.P. and R. C. Shoaf of Warrensville was one of the many companies that purchased the wood. Farmers cut the logs into eight-foot lengths and split them into manageable “rails.”
They trucked it to Shoaf’s store where Cecil measured and paid. The seller then drove across the bridge to the railroad siding where he unloaded it. Once Cecil had enough for a “car-load” he would tell Little Doc Jones, the depot agent to order him a box car. Once it arrived Cecil sent two men to load it.
Bill Maye and I loaded several box cars with extract for 50 cents an hour, standard pay at the time. Once when Cecil needed Bill to haul a load of blocks from Elizabethton, Tenn., he couldn’t find anyone to help me load a box car. “I’ll do it myself,” I said as an overconfident 15 year old would do. He sent me to the siding. It took me all day and I was too tired to even eat supper. I never again volunteered to load a boxcar by myself.
The chestnut trees are gone and tanning of leather has changed drastically. Ashe County played an important role in the industry and Smethport gained a name.