Behind the Scenes: Special Collections
Libraries like to present a calm public exterior, but a flurry of diverse activities are occurring behind the scenes. For instance, outside the Technical Services and Special Collections area, volunteers are working on a special local collection called the McHone Collection, consisting of business records from the Houck Tannery of Harrisonburg, once one of the largest leather processor in the Shenandoah Valley. The company processed bark from the area’s oak forests to produce the tannin used to cure the hides.
Viet Vu, a first year student from Richmond, spends about four hours a week cleaning and sorting these forms. Vu is a Centennial Scholar, a scholarship program funded by JMU that encourages students in the program to get involved in an internship or some form of community service. Thanks to his efforts, and that of another JMU student, volunteer Jodie Tsou, the work in processing and preserving the collection is moving rapidly toward completion. As Vu explains, "we clean these documents with care because they date back to the 1900s and are fragile. We also sort by type of document and chronologically."
Houck Tannery was located between Bruce and Water streets downtown, on the site of the current municipal parking garage. As the finding aid for the collection points out, the tannery was a major industry in the community. By 1891, the tannery was consuming 10,000 tons of oak bark per year. J.P. Houck, the tannery’s owner, also ran a store near Court Square that sold household goods and furniture. The tannery even channeled the excess steam power created in the tanning process to provide electricity for downtown street lights. This was prior to the formation of the Harrisonburg Electric Commission.
The Houck Tannery’s business records were discovered in the late 1990s in the attic of the Houck Building in downtown Harrisonburg during the building’s renovation. Building owner James McHone and his brother donated the materials to JMU Libraries’ Special Collections. The McHone location was evidently the site of Houck’s offices, and the papers had endured over 80 years of exposure to heat, humidity, and rodents. The collection included an account ledger, numerous receipts, payment notes, bark tonnage records, check stubs, and railroad freight forms. All these materials shed light on commercial life in Rockingham County from the 1880s to the 1920s, when the tannery closed its doors. Many of these materials have already been cleaned, sorted, cataloged, and in the case of the ledger, transcribed. The final work on the collection, currently being done by Viet Vu and Jodie Tsou, consists of cleaning and sorting the twenty feet of railroad forms (see picture) that were punched and strung onto lengths of steel wire, which was the tannery’s simple but thorough filing system.
The McHone Brothers' collection will provide a rich and unique source for researchers interesting in commercial, environmental, and social conditions in the Shenandoah Valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The records provide evidence on such varied aspects of local history as deforestation of the region, railroad shipping activity, and race relations (the account ledger was segregated, so researchers can retrieve economic information by race). As of now, the collection is closed while processing continues.
For more information on local history manuscript collections and other local historical materials, visit the Special Collections web site.
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