Hermann Oak Leather was founded in 1881 in St. Louis, one of hundreds of tanneries in the United States at the time. Today, the tanning industry has migrated south of the border (mostly to Mexico and Argentina, leaving only a handful of commercial tanneries in the United States. And of the remaining few, Hermann Oak may be the only one that uses the ancient practice of vegetable tanning to turn hides into leather.
“We only buy steer hides. No heifers,” says Shep Hermann, the fourth generation Hermann to run the company. “Because steers have bigger, thicker hides.”
Mark Jemelka, the COO of Tucker Saddles, says flatly: “One of the big reasons we can make the saddles we make is because of Hermann Oak.”
Premium saddles can cost big bucks, and it’s not the tooling you’re paying for. It’s the saddle leather and the construction.
There are hundreds of packinghouses that process cattle, but Hermann only buys from “about four”—and never from a hide broker.
“We only buy a narrow selection of hides,” says Hermann. “They can be any breed, but they’re all native, unbranded steers, which is only one-third of the market. We select for the best salt cure, done quickly onsite. Then we look for the best “take-off” [the fewest number of butcher cuts, which weakens the leather]. They can’t have brands, wrinkles, or scars. Finally, we look for the best grain quality, which speaks to healthy steers that have been well taken care of.”
Once the hides arrive in St. Louis, the 70-person company uses high-tannic trees and chemicals to catalyze the two-to-three month process of tanning the leather.
“When we get a hide, it’s a pretty ugly thing,” says Hermann. When they’re done with it, the result is a supple, durable, beautiful leather from which some of the very best saddles in the world are made—and made right here in the U.S.A.