In 1892, the present structure of the Barber Leather Company was completed at 60 Union St. The current building was necessitated by an 1890 fire that had totally destroyed the previous compound. What does remain of this hallowed structure’s original design provides observers with only a partial sense of its historic grandeur. These remains include the Italianate facade bearing the Barber name, as well as the Union Street work tower, a picturesque feature emblematic of so many North Adams mill complexes.
Any study of the Barber Leather Company’s earliest history will inevitably familiarize the reader with some of the most prominent names in North Adams history. The operation which later was to transition into Barber Leather had its previous incarnation as a tannery. This establishment claimed Alfred Olds, Ira Bennet, and A.P. Butler among its stakeholders. Rounding out the list of those involved in the inception of the business were Charles H. Read and Jonathon Brooks. It was from the last of these two North Adams city fathers that Daniel J. Barber bought into the C.H. Read & CO. leather manufacturers in 1872.
J. Barber was no stranger to the tannery business or the area, having been born in Pownal, Vermont to a well-known family whose Bennington ancestry could be traced back to Revolutionary War days. After a successful venture in a cotton producing enterprise, Barber invested in a Stamford, Vermont leather producing outfit. It was in the course of his time as proprietor of the Stamford tannery that Barber entered into partnership with the same J.L. Brooks who would share in the future ownership of Barber’s North Adams leather business.
Following his merging with Brooks and Mead, the thirty- six-year-old Barber’s North Adams leather production foray met with early success. In fact, the savvy Barber’s business acumen proved such that he was able to buy out Read in 1875, and later became sole proprietor upon Brooks’ 1876 death. Business was brisk for Barber’s tannery enterprises, interrupted only by the 1890 blaze that was only covered partly by insurance.
Nevertheless, by 1892 D.J. Barber had concluded the construction of the new 200 by 40 ft. building, the remnants of which stand to this day in the Willow Dell neighborhood of North Adams. It was on this lot that the output from Barber’s factory would lead, in its heyday, to the tanning of 150,000 hides per year and the employment of 100 to 150 workers. The concern earned a stellar reputation for the quality of the leather work produced, with its imitation seal skin being a particularly prized item. Business was brisk enough in fact that never, at peak capacity, was production halted for any time due to lack of orders. The insole division of the leather department was suspended temporarily during the war years on account of a rise in price of raw materials
Production fell after World War I, with a corresponding decline in employees. Leather manufacturing at Barber had ended by the mid-1940s, with production continuing in products such as chair backs and ongoing distribution of leather products. Later in the twentieth century, parts of the building were leased to other business concerns, before all production ceased and eventually the questions of demolition arose.
Since 1831, this tannery and leather concern steadily produced an array of high quality, fashionable goods and seat coverings. At its peak, the outfit was able to turn out 1.5 million chair seats a year. Additionally, the quality and artistry found in their chair back coverings had earned the outfit world renown. What does remain of Barber’s operation is testament to the durability of a nearly one-hundred and fifty-years ago business enterprise that contributed to the prosperity and prestige of the area.