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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Tanning the hides of animals they loved, meet women-owned Driftless Tannery

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Danielle Dockery at work at the Driftless Tannery.

It’s gun deer hunting season in Wisconsin. Some hunters are not only thinking harvesting the meat, but the hides too.

Tanning is top of mind, all the time, for a women-owned business in rural southwest Wisconsin.

The team at Driftless Tannery in Argyle, Wisconsin is striving to live out its mission: to naturally preserve an animal’s hide, reduce waste and protect the environment.

Bethany Storm sort of backed into hide tanning.

Her journey began in 2014 when her family struck out from the Chicago area to a windy highpoint in Green County. Storm wanted to give her two young daughters a healthier life.

That meant growing tons of fruits and vegetables on their five-acre parcel. A collection of chickens, goats and sheep gradually followed.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
In addition to her own sheep and goats, Bethany Storm takes in orphaned lambs and other animals.

She was pretty much a vegetarian, but Storm discovered, for her, knowing exactly where her family’s food came from matters. So she began folding meat raised by fellow homesteaders into her meals.

“My first year I was trading eggs for bacon. My friend April raises pigs. I make lotions and soap and I would trade those for meat or whatever it was I happened to be in need of,” Storm says.

She also was inspired to have the hide from her sheep and goats tanned.

She sent the hides to a tannery, then had them turned into things you can see around her home. A pillow here a throw there—they are tastefully displayed.

“So this is Jim. Jim was a hair sheep. So he has this really fun curly hair about him,” Storm says.

Storm says harvesting a sheep, for example, meant using every bit possible out of respect for the animal and the earth.

But finding a tannery that didn’t use chemicals was difficult.

“Those ones, they were done commercial and what really struck me when I got them back is that they smelled very strongly of chemical. I could taste it in my mouth when I sat next to them,” Storm says.

Commonly called the chrome method, Storm says is generally quicker and more fail-safe. But chromium is used. Not only was Storm concerned about the toxic heavy metal she smelled in her home, but the danger the industrial tanning method can have on the environment.

Tanning the hides of animals they loved, meet women-owned Driftless Tannery

In early 2020 Storm and two fellow homesteaders set out to learn how to tan naturally. Experimenting first in a barn, then a warehouse before settling in this 1890s cheese factory in the wee town of Argyle. It’s now their company, Driftless Tannery’s home.

Dozens of hides—mostly sheep but some goats and deer too—are neatly hanging, awaiting their turn.

“The biggest thing we were about here —because we don’t use chemicals— is bacteria getting to the hide and slipping the hair off of it," Storm says.

Nearby are stacks of 50-pound bags of baking soda.

“That’s sodium bicarb. That’s what we use to neutralize everything,” Storm says.

They also use lots of water and salt. Mimosa bark and alum are other key ingredients of the process.

Storm entered this world from a very different one. She’s a biologist. Fellow founder Danielle Dockery spent years coordinating shipments internationally by air and ground in Chicago. Today they’re often elbow, and sometimes ankle deep in tanning.

Dockery says much of their equipment has been donated or modified or they have made it themselves. That includes everything from the worktables to the concoction they use later in the process to oil the skin.

“We start in this power washing cabinet that we built. We started with a similar set up but no curtain. And for a year we just take the back spray to the face," Dockery says."It was pretty miserable until we could afford a curtain because these things aren’t cheap."

Hides stream in from around the country from people looking for a natural tanning option. Dockery pages through their most recent orders.

“Vermont, Tennessee, Arizona, Minnesota, Connecticut, Georgia— truly we get them from coast to coast. I mean we haven’t yet gotten anything else from Hawaii or Alaska, but everywhere else,” Dockery says

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Susan Bence
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Pickling is part of the tanning process.

Customers send in their hide, which they must be salt dried. Driftless Tannery either sends the finished product back or will sell it on the customer’s behalf.

Bethany Storm says their mission goes beyond practicing the most natural tanning method possible. They want to demonstrate that sheep, for example, can be twice as valuable, especially to small family farms.

“A lamb off the hoof, they’re going to net about $150 from the meat in sales, they could get the same amount of money after our processing to sell the hide which is really big for a farmer,” Storm says.

They also want to prove hides have added economic value. They’re working with a local seamstress, who’s creating pillows, bags, mittens and muffs.

And Driftless is nurturing other entrepreneurs. Soon a women-owned butcher will be opening up shop in Argyle.

“We’ve been working close with them for years to get them up and running,” Storm says.

In the meantime Danielle Dockery says they continue to tweak and improve their operation.

“There are times we’re like holey moley can we physically keep this up,” Dockery admits.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Jon Thompson and Bethany Storm team up for the pickling process.

She says the addition of Jon Thompson to the team is helping tremendously.

At the moment the Argyle resident is hoisting hides that have been pickling in a mixture of water, citric acid – a natural compound - and salt. Jon is both busy and a man of few words.

“I saw an ad in the paper and here I am,” Thompson says.

What does he think of the operation? “I like it,” Thompson says.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Stella Jacoby raises sheep and had taught herself to tan before joining the Driftless team.

At the other end of the building, Stella Jacoby is working with the nearly finished product.

“Kind of stretching them and softening them up,” she says.

Jacoby seems to have dropped in magically from the heavens.

Her family lives 10 minutes drive away, she’s home schooled and is finishing her high school requirements. Stella had already tanned a couple hides on her own before coming on the tannery scene.

“My first hides were deer because my dad said there’s nothing we can do with that. Just throw it away. I felt bad so I looked it up on the internet and figured out how to do it because I didn’t want to waste it and that’s kind of part of the whole mission of this—using every part,” Jacoby says.

Driftless Tannery’s mission seems to be catching on naturally.

They filled 800 orders this year. In 2023 the team anticipates surpassing 1,000 orders.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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