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Union Mills Homestead conducts archaeological study seeking evidence of lost 19th-century tannery

The Union Mills Homestead Foundation is in the process of conducting an archaeological investigation directed at subsurface remnants of tanning vats that were part of the 19th-century Shriver Tannery.

Directed by archaeologist Elizabeth Anderson Comer, the project follows a ground-penetrating radar investigation earlier this year at the homestead. The GPR study used high-frequency radar pulses to locate a variety of underground materials believed to be associated with the Shriver Tannery.

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The results indicated the presence of subsurface features, like foundations, as well as soil disturbances from other archaeological materials.

The archaeological work is part of an ongoing investigation to assess historical resources at the Union Mills Homestead, with a focus on the Shriver Tannery. The tannery, where animal hides were made into leather, was one of the early industries at the Union Mills industrial complex when it began in 1797. The Shriver family operated a tannery at Union Mills for almost a century, from 1797 through the mid-1890s.

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According to a report earlier this year by Comer, products from the tannery were used for leather goods for travelers through Union Mills and for leather drive belts for the site’s grist mill. In the 1820s and 1830s the tannery grew into a larger enterprise.

Comer’s work may locate a tannery hidden from view for over a century.

She said on Friday her team did a soil probe within its unit and found what Comer called “a matrix” that contained animal hair. The group will return to the site Monday to continue digging in search of physical evidence of subterranean tanning vats.

“Union Mills is an open landscape with no discernible features, but what is underneath is an incredibly important resource,” Comer said. “We’re almost certain that we actually have a vat that is present but it’s still not exposed … We’re not deep enough yet.”

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Tanneries in the 19th century were some of the most important industries in the area, yet there are few remaining active tanneries in the region. After the Shriver Tannery ceased operations in the 1890s, most of its structures were removed over time.

There aren’t many tanneries around, so having the opportunity to explore one archaeologically is very rare, particularly in Carroll County, Comer said.

The Union Mills Homestead property is owned by the Carroll County government and operated by the Union Mills Homestead Foundation under a long-term lease.

Sam Riley, project coordinator, said there was a lot of collaboration involved in the project between the county government, grant agencies and the Maryland Historical Trust, which lists the homestead on Maryland’s National Register Properties.

The investigation is funded under a grant from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, a Maryland Heritage Area certified by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.

Riley said physical evidence of the tannery would make it easier to “tell the story” of the industrial enterprise in the 19th century.

“There’s a high degree of expectation that we’ll find something,” he said.

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