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Rufus Ward: Tan Yard Park

 

An early fur trade document from Columbus which says: “Capt E. Kewin, There is due to the bearer Underwood a Chickasaw on account of hides 1.06 1/4 June 14, 1829 Tho. B. Mullen”

An early fur trade document from Columbus which says: “Capt E. Kewin, There is due to the bearer Underwood a Chickasaw on account of hides 1.06 1/4 June 14, 1829 Tho. B. Mullen”
Photo by: Billups-Garth Archives, Columbus-Lowndes Public Library

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

A few days ago I was asked: "Why in the world would they want to name the new Columbus soccer complex Tan Yard Park?" Historically there is a very good reason for that name. 

 

What is now commonly referred to as the Hitch Lot or Burns Bottom is the location of the earliest known industrial site in Columbus. The original United States Survey of 1823, which includes Columbus, calls Moore''s Creek the "Tan Yard Branch" and shows a farm or improved area south of the creek about where the park is being developed and north of Military Street (now Second Avenue North). Apparently, by 1823 there was a hide tanning business operating there. This site includes the location of the present-day farmers'' market  

 

Earlier accounts reflect that just below the mouth of Moore''s Creek was the favored high water crossing of the Tombigbee by the Choctaws during the 1700s and early 1800s and was one of the likely locations for Hernando de Soto to have crossed the Tombigbee River in December 1540. It was also there that the 1817 survey of the Military Road showed the road''s Tombigbee crossing. By 1820 the Tombigbee River ferry was in operation at that site. 

 

The river crossing location was the reason for the settlement of Columbus and is just north of the present site of the new bridge to the Island. Oscar Keeler''s 1849 map of Columbus shows a "Tan Yard Shop" located where the Boy Scout building is now. It is apparent that a tan yard was operating in that area by 1823 but the name of the original operator is not known.  

 

There are several possibilities as to who was that first tan yard operator. The 1822 minutes of the Trustees of Franklin Academy, which was the first governing body of Columbus, mention that "Bonn and Tinsley" were operating a tan yard. In describing the early settlement of Columbus, W.E. Gibbs wrote in 1871 that George Goode "had his tan yard at the intersection of Franklin and Military Streets." That would be the present-day intersection of Third Street North and Second Avenue North or the same location as the 1849 Tan Yard. Goode was at that location by the mid-1830s.  

 

The 1820 census of Columbus does not list a Bonn, Tinsley or Goode. It does give the names of three people in Columbus who have manufacturing operations. They were John Bibb, William Cocke, and Andrew McCrary. The original tan yard operator could have been any of those six individuals or someone unknown. The tan yard was, however, the first recorded industry in Columbus. The tan yard site eventually became the Columbus Manufacturing Co. in 1858 and later the Hitch Lot but that is a story for another day. A question I will address is that of what was a tan yard in 1820.  

 

The business of a tan yard was the turning of animal hide into leather. In order to best understand the process as it was accomplished in the early 1800s, we can use a period reference work. The Parlor Book or Family Encyclopedia was written by the Rev. John Blake in 1835 and a copy was in the library at Snowdoun, an antebellum home in Columbus. In the book Blake described the process then in use to make leather. 

 

"Tannin (is) a vegetable extract [obtained from oak or willow bark] which combines with animal gelatine, forming a tough substance, and hence its use in converting skins into leather. ... The first part of this [process] consists in taking off the hair, which is effected by steeping in lime water. When this is done, and everything superfluous is removed with the knife and the pumice, as in the preparation of parchment, the skin is put into the tan; that is being stretched in a pit, it is covered with tan, and the pit filled with water." 

 

The finished product after curing and drying is leather. 

 

It is apparent from the process that it was an important business venture but not one that would be located in a residential or retail/commercial part of town. The bottom between the town and the river offered a perfect location. There was plenty of water and it was far enough away but close to town. 

 

The business would have obtained cowhides from area farms and prior to the Indian cessions of the 1830s deer hides brought in trade by Choctaws and Chickasaws. 

 

With its associations with the beginnings of Columbus, the Tan Yard played an important role in the early development of the town. Tan Yard Park is a fitting name for a sports complex linking history and heritage with our youth.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Peter commented at 5/3/2010 4:13:00 PM:

Walter, there is a public forum tonight at the Municipal Complex at 5:30 where the public can give input on this project. Hope you can make it.

 

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