GLOVERSVILLE, N.Y. — Two hundred years after Indians tanned deerskin in these Adirondack foothills, one of America's few surviving frontier industries is facing extinction.
Glove making and tanning once boomed in the upstate New York cities of Gloversville and Johnstown. For more than 15 decades, the neighboring cities have been key producers of gloves for American soldiers, farmers and churchgoers.
New York is still the nation's leading tanning and glove-making state--and more than two-thirds of the industry's work force is in Fulton County, according to the state Labor Department.
But for the "Glove Cities" and other leather centers around the country, their traditional livelihood is threatened by cheap imports and environmental problems.
"There are literally thousands of people here who are desperate," said Bill Towne, a local union leader, gesturing at "For Sale" signs hung on shops on Gloversville's Main Street. "Unless there's some federal trade protection, the industry is doomed."
The air around the wood-and-brick tanneries is heavy with the smell of manure and ammonia. In the predawn twilight, hundreds of the cities' 27,000 residents are already at work, treating, cutting and coloring animal skins.
"These people love leather," said tanner Frank Perrella, watching men in long aprons sling rubbery white sheepskins over wooden stands.
Perrella, whose firm produces the baby-soft leather for Anne Klein and Aris' Isotoner gloves, said tanners are struggling to compete with overseas companies using cheap labor or getting government subsidies.
The "Glove Cities" are not alone. Foreign competition is hurting leather-producing centers in Wisconsin, Maine, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Labor Department's Industrial Outlook '86. Leather industry employment nationwide dropped nearly 10% between 1984 and 1985, to 15,800 workers, the Labor Department said.
Labor costs are not the only advantage foreign firms have. They frequently pay less for skins, either because governments restrict the export of raw leather or subsidize its purchase, the Labor Department said.
"The leather industry is in financial straits," said Dave Simek, president of the Fulton County Tanners Assn., speaking over the clanking of machinery at his tannery. "There have been no profits for the past five or six years."
Simek said that many foreign firms get off scot-free when it comes to environmental costs. "You have plants in Argentina and Brazil that are dumping effluent out into the backyard," he said.
Since November, 1985, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required tanners to treat their wastes.
In Fulton County, the environmental boom fell earlier. After decades of dumping such tanning agents as benzene, arsenic and lead into landfills and the local creek, leather manufacturers paid millions for a sewage plant in 1979. Now, they will spend millions more to improve it.
Meanwhile, the state is threatening to sue the cities because of hazardous wastes at the landfills. And state environmental officials say they may require further treatment of the stream--once known as the "Rainbow Creek" for the multicolored dyes that flowed through it.
"In some sort of way, it (the industry) will stay here, but there will be a shaking out," said John Papa, a glove maker and leather producer. "It all depends on what happens with the sewage disposal."
Fulton County's unemployment rate, at 14.2%, is more than double the state's 6.7% rate. Half a dozen of the cities' 30 leather tanning or finishing shops have shut their doors in the last two years. Six hundred of the county's 2,900 leather jobs vanished last year.
"A long time ago, Gloversville was the glove capital of the world--bar none," said Papa, whose Mario Papa & Sons Inc. produces military gloves ranging from combat gear to the dress grays for the Air Force Academy.