Even a few blocks away from the factory, the smell of leather hangs in the air. An institution in Chicago, the Horween Leather Company has occupied its site on the corner of Elston and Ashland Avenues on the Near Northwest Side for almost 100 years. In this time, little to do with their manufacturing process has changed. Tradition is a big deal here.
It’s a dark, dull day and the rain lashes the sidewalk. Standing outside the factory, it feels a bit like a scene from a graphic novel set in 1920s America.
Inside, entering from the street through an old wooden door, it’s surprisingly dim. My eyes take a second to adjust as the door clicks shut. In front of me is a narrow staircase, and I slowly ascend feeling notably apprehensive at the lack of signage. Or staff.
I emerge into a tiny wood-panelled room, at which point a small stained-glass window slides open, through which I’m quizzed about my presence. It feels a bit like a confession booth.
He leads me to an area where the hides are being trimmed. Stacks of leather tower over us. A worker armed with a sabre-like blade nods politely as he cuts the leather to size.
Establishing I’m not a vagrant, I’m taken to meet the manager, Jon. A lifelong leather salesman, I’m hoping he can help me source a very specific article. He offers up a welcoming smile and a firm handshake, and we head off down the hallway.
Since 1941, this factory has been the exclusive supplier of the leather used to make NFL footballs. The company’s founders even had brief stints playing in the NFL back when it was in its infancy. As the company grew, they began to supply the leather for NBA basketballs, as well as Rawlings baseball gloves. Today, they’re internationally renown for producing leather sought after by the likes of high-end fashion houses and luxury car manufacturers.
Their football leather, however, is the reason I’m here. Instantly recognisable, wonderfully tactile, I fleetingly remind myself that every ball Joe Montana has rained down into the end zone started its life here. Hallowed ground indeed.
Although much hasn’t changed in the production process the hides still come from the midwest cattle ranches and the leather is predominantly made by hand the industry, in general, has seen some big shifts. In the 1970s, there were well over 250 tanneries operating in the US. Today, only a handful remain. Horween is now the longest continuously running tannery in the States.
We wander through a few storage rooms where the hides are stacked high and the floorboards creak underfoot, before entering a room where the only thing more striking than the noise level is the size of the room itself. The factory’s length encompasses an entire city block, and we pass row after row of vintage machines used to wax and finish the leather..
As we approach the simmering pools where the leather is bathed, beads of sweat begin to form on my forehead. It’s stifling. Jon, who looks perfectly comfortable, shouts out some partially audible information over the din of the working apparatus; I nod happily in agreement despite being fundamentally unsure exactly what I’m nodding to.
As luck would have it, Jon leads me to an area where the hides are being trimmed. Stacks of leather tower over us. A worker armed with a sabre-like blade nods politely as he cuts the leather to size. He casts the remnants into a big wooden box, in which there must be 100lbs of dimpled offcuts. John tells me it’s all fresh football leather. This is too much of an opportunity to pass up. Apprehensive, as it would mean interrupting the cutting process, I ask John if I can look through the bin.
“ Sure, I’ll help. ”
I buy as much of the choice cuts as I can carry there and then.
Stepping back outside, leaving the factory behind, the vaguely smokey, salty fragrance gradually fades. Before long, I’m stood in central Chicago surrounded by the clamour of the city. The Horween factory feels a world away because in some senses it is an artisanal manufacturer the likes of which have become increasingly rare, especially in US cities. Horween’s success is testament not only to the value of tradition and craft, but a sense of place. Horween and Chicago go together like a hand in a ball glove.
I can relate to that.