The Terpeniye Tanning Mill

by Peter A. Kouznitsoff

In the early 1900’s, the Doukhobors of Terpeniye village in the Blaine Lake district of Saskatchewan established a tanning mill for the processing of raw animal hides into leather. Tanning operations were modeled on methods used in Russia. The horse-driven mill was an important local industry, supplying the village and surrounding area with leather for making bridles, harnesses, reins, belts and other agricultural goods and products. Although the mill ceased production in the early Thirties, it is still keenly recalled by some local residents. The following article by Peter A. Kouznitsoff, as told to Gerry Laughren, recounts the Terpeniye tanning mill. Reproduced by permission from the “12-40 Report” (Blaine Lake, SK: January 2000) p. 7.

My dad made the leather tanning mill many years ago. I believe the design originated in Russia. It was during the late 1930’s that I last saw it used. Although I was only about twelve years old at the time, I still remember the details quite well. It did a good job of tanning leather, suitable for harness making, including the traces.

We lived in the village of Terpania [sic. Terpeniye], south east of Blaine Lake on Section 22, Township 43, Range 6, west of the 3rd meridian. Our school district was Brook Hill. The mill was built on a vacant lot near our house, and set on a mound of earth for drainage, so it was always relatively dry for working.

Residents of Terpeniye village, Blaine Lake district, SK, c. 1916-1917.  Bridging the Years, Era of Blaine Lake and District, 1790-1980.

To prepare the hide for tanning, the hair had to first be removed. This was done by burying it in a pile of fresh manure that had started to heat. After several days, it was dug up and inspected to see if the hair was easy to remove. If not, it would be buried again, and the process repeated until it was ready to remove the hair. TO do this, a log was placed on a couple of saw horses, and the hide placed over the log with the hair side up. A home made scraper, similar to a carpenters draw knife but not as sharp, was used to remove the fur.

To begin the tanning, the hide was laid out flat, and a quantity of harness oil was brushed over the entire surface. It was then placed in the mill in the prescribed manner. As the mill rotated, the steel pins kneaded the hide, helping in the absorption of the oil. When the hide would absorb no more oil, the tanning was complete. Of course, it was abit more complicated, as the instructions will show.

Instructions for Operating the Mill

First, place the bottom plate with tongue attached over the upright shaft. Depending on the size of the hide, fold lengthwise into three or four thicknesses. Insert one leg in the hole in the shaft, and drive in a wedge to hold it in place. This holds the hide stationary while the plates are turning, causing the kneading action. The top is then installed, and the steel pin inserted, alternating on opposite sides of the hide.

Hitch your horse to the tongue, and have it pull the tongue in a circular motion around the shaft, (this was Peter’s job at twelve years of age). After several revolutions the pins must be removed, the hide removed and re-oiled, and reinserted after being folded in a different pattern. The pins are installed, again alternating on opposite sides of the hide. Turn the horse around, and make several revolutions in the other direction.

Diagram of the tanning mill at Terpeniye village, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, early 1900’s.

As can be seen, this is tedious work, and required a lot of patience. When the hide won’t absorb more oil, leave it for a few days and then repeat the operation. If no oil is absorbed, the tanning is complete, and you now have a slab of good harness leather.