The American Sumac Industry

Historical Article Series April 26, 2020 > The American Sumac Industry

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 46, No. 4, November 2012

A recent inquiry about the mills in Mount Hope led me on a research journey to learn about the long-forgotten sumac industry.  I knew little about sumac mills, their products or how they operated. I hope you will enjoy learning about this as much as I did! – Ann Galonska

 Sumacs are one of the harbingers of autumn. By September sumacs are crowned with crimson clusters of berries known as drupes and their leaves are among the first to change color. They brighten roadsides, open fields and the edges of woods. 

Sumac
Sumac

Although admired for its autumn beauty, sumac is now considered an invasive pest. Birds and animals spread its seeds widely creating new colonies.  Bushes also multiply along the root system of established trees.  Sumac can quickly overtake open spaces. 

Today efforts are made to control sumac, but in the past, it was harvested and had great market value. Every part of the sumac was useful for various purposes.  

The leaves contain a high level of tannic acid and have been used for centuries in the tanning of leather.  Sumac tannin produces flexible light-colored or white leather, commonly known as Moroccan leather.  It was much valued in the manufacture of book bindings, gloves and other fine leather articles.  

Sumac Mill
Sumac Mill

Sumac leaves were also used in the manufacture of dyes for the textile industry.  With the addition of different metallic compounds, sumac yields colored dyes ranging from shades of yellow to gray or black.  Sumac bark was also used as a mordant in the production of red dyes.

The fruit of the sumac also has many uses.  It is very high in vitamin C and makes delicious, healthful teas, lemonades and tonics.  The fruit is also dried, ground and used as a spice in many cultures.  It is a common ingredient in Arabic, Mediterranean, Turkish and Lebanese cuisine.

In addition, all parts of the sumac tree or bush have medicinal value. Sumac has been used throughout history as a treatment for fever, diarrhea, gangrene, gonorrhea, syphilis, urinary tract problems, and water retention.

Sumac is abundant in America and free for the taking. In the late 18th century American entrepreneurs recognized its commercial value. Powdered sumac was in much demand by leather manufacturers and the imported European sumac was expensive.  Processing domestic sumac held promise of becoming to be a very profitable industry.

Connecticut became the birthplace of America’s sumac industry.  In 1793, Rosewell Saltonstall received a U.S. patent “for the exclusive rights of manufacture and vending SUMAC in all its parts and productions.” He and his son Richard established America’s first sumac mill in New London and later built a second one in Groton. They advertised extensively in the local papers to recruit sumac pickers.  The pickers were advised to “cut from the first day of July to the first day of September next, not exceeding two feet in length, measuring from the tops downward, cured of the lightest pea green colour, bound into sheaves, nine inches in diameter (it being found by experience if larger, they are apt to spoil) and carefully housed in clear weather… Four pounds per Ton will be paid, one half Cash, the other half in goods at Cash price.” (The Weekly Register, Norwich, July 22, 1795).

The pickers delivered the dried sumac to the mill where it was crushed into powder under rotating millstones.  The powdered sumac was then sifted and bagged for the market.  Tanneries added the sumac powder to water and then boiled the mixture to extract the tannin needed for their work.

Seeing the Saltonstall’s initial success, other entrepreneurs soon followed.  On January 7, 1797, Rosewell Saltonstall appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives to protest the violation of his patent rights, but no action was taken. His brief monopoly of the American sumac market was over. Soon competing sumac mills were established in Hartford and New Haven and the industry quickly spread to other states.  In August of 1801, Rosewell Saltonstall went bankrupt and his home and mills were sold to settle debts.

 In fact, few of the early sumac mills experienced much success.  The powdered sumac they produced compared poorly with imported sumac. Sicilian sumac (R. coriaria) continued to be the most valued.  It contained the highest percentage of tannic acid and was the only sumac variety capable of producing white leather.  The extract obtained from American varieties, although effective in tanning, produced a darker leather.

In the years following the Civil War, the sumac industry grew, especially in the southern states.  Virginia became the largest producer of sumac powder and extract. The southern sumac manufacturers had an advantage over their northern counterparts.  Sumac grown in the warm southern climate had a higher level of tannic acid in its leaves than did the northern grown sumac and was thus the superior tanning agent.  The northern produced sumac found greater use in the dye industry.

Improvements had been made in the harvesting and processing of sumac since the days of Saltonstall’s mills.  It was now realized that the leaves and stems contained the greatest amount of tannic acid.  Mill owners instructed their pickers to collect only these, for the inclusion of the stalks and fruit would dilute the tannin content of the powdered sumac.  Careful drying was also crucial to the quality of the final product.  The leaves had to be turned daily and protected from moisture to prevent rotting and mold.

The Commissioner of Agriculture promoted the sumac industry in his report for the year 1869.  “More care having been used in gathering and preparing sumac since 1867, it is now demonstrated, and acknowledged by consumers in our own country, and dealers in Europe, that American sumac, from the best mills, excels in quality and equals in preparation any in the world… In one respect only is the home production inferior to the foreign; it has not yet been found capable, as generally manufactured, of tanning leather white, a quality which the Sicilian sumac possesses.”

The Commissioner’s 1869 report also included the illustration above showing the machinery used in a typical sumac mill.  The dried sumac leaves were ground into powder beneath the toothed chasers or rollers that rotated around a wooden bed. Each roller weighed some 2,500 pounds.  There was a depression around the bed to collect the ground sumac. The machinery was stopped periodically in order to sweep the powder from the bed and pack it into bags.  Some sumac mills featured an elevator similar to those in a flour mill.  A scraper swept the powder into a hole that fed the elevator from whence it was carried to a rotating sieve. The sifted sumac was then funneled into bags.

The rosy picture painted in the Commissioner’s 1869 report encouraged others to enter the sumac business.  In 1879, James Walden and Henry H. Flint established a sumac mill in Mansfield. The two partners owned a drug store in Willimantic and, as a sideline business, also supplied dyes to the many textile mills in the area.  

They repurposed a former shoddy mill and bone mill in Mount Hope for their new enterprise and hired Elisha Shumway to be the miller. The mill had only been in operation a short time when, on August 13, 1880, it was destroyed by fire (The Willimantic Chronicle, August 18, 1880). Fortunately the loss was covered by insurance and a larger mill with improved machinery was soon built.  It was ready for business the following spring.

The Historical, Statistical and Industrial Review of the State of Connecticut, published in 1884, contains this description of the enterprise: “Henry H. Flint, wholesale and retail druggist of Willimantic, is the pioneer of this section in the manufacture and grinding of sumac, and he makes a specialty of its production. [James Walden withdrew from the business in 1881.] The material is collected within a radius of twenty miles, and is used for tanning and mordant in dyeing.  The manufacture of this article was commenced about five years ago, and the demand for it is rapidly increasing…  The salesrooms are about 25×50 feet in area, with a storehouse in the rear, of two stories and a basement… “ 

How long Mansfield’s sumac mill remained in operation is unknown.  However Henry Flint died in 1901 and it’s unlikely that the mill continued past then.  Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, the American sumac industry was in general decline as demand for their product decreased.  Tanneries still preferred to use Sicilian sumac and the textile industry had moved to synthetic dyes.

When World War I and II cut off the supply of imported sumac, the American sumac industry enjoyed a brief revival.  The Department of Agriculture reawakened interest in the business when it published two bulletins in 1918 and 1920 that gave detailed instructions on how to properly harvest and cure sumac.  It pointed out that “country people, especially the elderly, and women and children, can earn good wages from July to September by gathering and curing sumac.”  Unfortunately the renewed interest in the sumac industry was short-lived.  The market for sumac collapsed in the 1950s and 60s when synthetic tanning agents were developed.  The last of the American sumac mills closed during this time and the once thriving industry faded from memory.

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