By John Hassell Yeatts © 1986
Issue: November, 1986
(Editor's Note: Our thanks to Hilda Vivier, for sharing these wonderful old photographs. Hilda's great-grandmother, Martha Ann Scott, 1856-1940, was the oldest child of Thomas Delaplane Scott and Lucinda Ellen Sandifer Scott.)
We called it the Concord Tree, but it was actually a big pippin apple tree that reached nearly 50 feet into the clean air at the edge of my father's orchard in Old Mayberry [Virginia]. So entwined were its branches with 2 healthy Concord grape vines that it gave the appearance of a living arbor whose sole purpose was to support the vines and six or eight Yeatts children and their guests who climbed and clamored among its branches, gorging themselves on the sweet and succulent fruit that ripened late in August and lasted until the school bell in October called us back to the little gray school house that stood near the present Mayberry Presbyterian Church.
But it was more than that; much more. The tree's large and strong limbs and branches gave safe and comfortable support for perching and "looking" up and down the road and sometimes listening to our Sister Eunice read from a book of poetry or fairy tales while we fed upon the fruit of the vine.
My favorite spot was the tip top fork that sometimes swayed with the buffeting breezes and caused me to dream of being the lookout on a tall sailing vessel. There were few limits to our imagination. From my perch I could see much of the activity at S.C. Scott's Store [now Mayberry Trading Post] and at his brother Simon's tanning emporium that stood only a few hundred feet beyond the store on the Bankstown road. Sometimes my consuming curiosity would pull me from the tree to beseech my mother to allow me to visit that center of excitement on some imagined errand. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. When it didn't, I would sulkingly return to my nest and dream of someday taking the dusty road to Mt. Airy and never returning. I devoutly believed that a trip around the world began and ended with the Squirrel Spur road.
From my lookout point in the tree I would sometimes listen and watch Austin Light, Abe Webb, Tom Terry and others driving their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to S.C. Scott's weighing yard to be marked with indelible ink and shipped or driven to the railroad. I could never reconcile the killing of lambs and calves for the table. "Why can't they just take the wool and the milk and let them live forever?" I would ask my mother. She usually replied, "Nothing lives forever but God, and God gave man dominion over all the animals." But deep in my heart I was developing a great admiration for the Seventh Day Adventists, whom I had heard ate no meat. But finally I came to accept the fate of the animals as I watched the large wagons loaded with fresh cattle hides rolling to Mr. Simon's tan yard. Somehow I understood the need for leather. So I began to learn how it was made.
Early on in boyhood I found out three basic things about the trade: It took lots and lots of water; lots and lots of cured bark and lime and much backbreaking work. Mr. Simon was a 145 pound human dynamo and the best tanner for miles and miles southwest of Lynchburg. He made the brick and laid the brick that formed his large two story tanning house. Then with bark peeled from saplings at high sap time, he piped the water several hundred yards from O.A. Yeatts' spring into his many 15'x15' vats dug into the earth and lined with choice lumber. Nearby stood his harness, shoe, and saddle shop where you'd sometimes find him at 10 p.m. shaping, sewing and riveting his durable leather into finished products. He worked by kerosene lamps until prosperity afforded him a Carbide gas system. But that's another story.
At his tanning yard he bought wagon load upon wagon load of chestnut oak and water oak bark peeled from saw logs and air dried by timber men. The bark was carefully stored in dry sheds to await grinding. Then with a special machine (you can still see it at Mabry Mill) and his well trained horses, he would grind and pulverize the bark into a consistency of shavings and sawdust.
Then, selected for its acidity and color it was placed into the vats to soak until the water was ready for the hides which had previously had the tissue and fat removed. Removing the flesh (called fleshing) was one of the most exacting and odorous jobs in the yard. The hides after days of soaking in lime water were removed from the vats and placed across a split and elevated chestnut log. A workman with his fingers, rasps, and drawing knives would remove the remaining fatty tissue. Great care had to be taken, for many of the hides were being tanned on a contract basis. And a torn or cut hide could not be mended.
Mr. Simon and his skilled workmen could tan a horse, beef, sheep or pig hide leaving it with or without, as desired, its hair. I've seen him process a black sheepskin and never fade it and a white skin and never stain it. He could make his leather light tan, dark tan or dark brown. He knew just how to do it. He was a wonder to behold and he paid me 15 cents an hour to pull weeds from his nearby gardens when I'd have done it for nothing just to be near the excitement. He knew it too, but he still paid me.
Well now he's gone. His tanning house is gone along with his saddle shop and the Concord Tree is gone. And Mayberry is, indeed, a sadder place. The leather industry had moved to Spain and Taiwan. Look at your next pair of leather shoes. They also tell me that now a days you must pay $5,000 extra for leather upholstery in your new Rolls Royce. Come to think of it, I never did see a Rolls Royce from my Concord Tree. But if I had, I'll bet you a dollar that Mr. Simon could have and would have made the seat covers. He was just that kind of a man.