© Jerry F. Couch
The Clinch Valley Times’ demolition photos of “The Old Smokestack” you see here were taken in July and August of 1981. The smokestack was one of the few remaining components of the Clinch River Extract Company’s manufacturing plant – once one of the largest employers in Wise County.
Here’s a picture of Riverside Drive taken in the 1970’s when the smokestack and the neighborhood were still standing.
One by one the surrounding houses and businesses were demolished. Structural remnants of the extract plant’s boiler house, engine house, and leach house were demolished as well.
Pictured below is a partially-collapsed wall of the boiler house. Over the years these ruins were a convenient source of used brick. Many bricks were hauled away and were probably incorporated into structures that are still standing.
Pictured below are the concrete piers that once supported the tubs in the leach house where shredded chestnut and oak bark were simmered to extract the tannic acid they contained.
Finally, the smokestack stood alone, awaiting its fate.
Holes were bored in the base of the smokestack and explosive charges were inserted.
Spectators gathered at Couch Hill on the other side of the Clinch River to watch the smokestack fall.
There was a loud “boom” and the smokestack began to topple over.
Afterwards, souvenir hunters collected pieces of the smokestack as mementos.
These men found corn cobs encased in the cement of the smokestack. Unlike today, its mortar incorporated river sand instead of crushed sandstone.
And then everyone went home. It was over.
The Story of Clinch River Extract Company
© Jerry F. Couch
This story of the Clinch River Extract Company begins on February 21, 1916. That’s when its parent corporation, the Ashland Leather Company, paid $2,100 to the St. Paul Land Company for a 22.37 acre tract of land known as “west end bottom.”
As a condition of sale, Ashland Leather agreed to immediately begin construction of an extract plant on the site and to use this property exclusively for manufacturing purposes for a period of ten years. Obviously this sale provided “other good and valuable considerations” to the St. Paul Land Company. More jobs in St. Paul would stimulate the local economy, making it possible to sell more lots for higher prices. And the St. Paul Land Company had plenty of good building lots to sell.
The Ashland Leather Company’s main plant was located at Ashland, Kentucky with corporate offices at 180 North Franklin Street, Chicago, Illinois. Theodore J. Shaut was the company’s president, treasurer, and general manager. Shaut had operated a tannery in Ashland since 1897. Following a major fire, this tannery was replaced in 1911 by a larger, more technologically advanced facility. The reason for this sudden growth was an infusion of operating capital from Swift & Company, which had become Ashland Leather’s principal stockholder with a 90% controlling interest.
Ashland Leather’s primary product was shoe leather. Soon there would be a huge demand for boots and shoes to outfit the United States Army following U.S. entry into the “European War” on April 6, 1917. From behind their corporate veil, Swift & Co. and other members of the “Beef Trust” were well-positioned to reap economic benefits from this development. As a result, they would be called upon by Congress and the courts to explain their actions – but that’s another story.
Tannic acid, also known as tannin, is a necessary component of leather manufacturing. It is an organic acid found in various plants and trees; especially chestnut oak and hemlock, where it is concentrated in the bark. Ashland Leather needed large quantities of tannic acid for its manufacturing process so the company set about obtaining its own source of supply. St. Paul was probably chosen as the site for Ashland Leather’s extract plant for a number of reasons; access to the CC&O railroad, reliable water & fuel supplies, a steady labor market, and plenty of raw material from the extensive timbering and logging operations in the region. Industrial waste could be casually disposed of in the Clinch River – something that caused little or no concern in those days.
Retaining the presidency of the new company for himself, Theodore Shaut placed his son, Guy E. Shaut, in charge of the Clinch River Extract Company facility as general manager. Guy Shaut was a chemical engineer by profession and a member of the American Leather Chemists‘ Association. Nepotism aside, he was well-qualified for this position. Two company-owned houses were built on Buchanan Street; one for Guy Shaut and one for F. T. McGlinchy, the company’s chief accountant. These houses are better known to long-term St. Paul residents as “the Richmond house” and “the Gillenwater house.” The two houses are outlined in red in the faded 1920 photograph below. That’s the Dr. J. N. Greear house at the center of the photo.
Construction of the Clinch River Extract Company’s physical plant was a major undertaking. Nothing like it had ever been seen in St. Paul. From their farm on the other side of the Clinch River, the Couch family watched in fascination as workers built the new plant’s tall smokestack. This smokestack would remain a St. Paul landmark until it was torn down on August 13, 1981. During those years, it appeared in the background of countless family snapshots. Future generations will probably look at those faded old photos and wonder “What on earth was that?”
In addition to the jobs provided by the Clinch River Extract Company during the ‘teens, the plant brought another important benefit to St. Paul – electricity. A dynamo powered by a 25 horsepower engine generated electricity for the plant’s internal use and also for the town through the St. Paul Light & Power Company. At last St. Paul residents could put away kerosene lamps and candles and forego the hiss and heat of gas lighting (though only until midnight). At the flick of a switch people had light. It was wonderful.
Electricity in 1917 was different from what we’re accustomed to in 2011. Failures were frequent and prolonged. Clear, low-wattage light bulbs were used and rooms were more softly lit. Though electrically-operated appliances were listed in Sears catalogs of the ‘teens, few people in St. Paul had them. Labor remained cheap and even townspeople of average means could hire someone to help with cooking, laundry, and other household tasks. And then it happened….someone bought that first electric washing machine. And someone bought that first electric iron. Soon, in addition to providing electricity in the evenings, the extract plant was providing power during the day on Mondays and Tuesdays so St. Paul customers could to do their laundry.
Electricity generated at the extract plant also made its way to Virginia City and other areas, as evidenced by St. Paul Light & Power’s electric-pole right-of-way agreements with nearby property owners. Lights were coming on in the hills, figuratively and literally, and nothing would be the same. The demand for electricity grew so rapidly the extract plant’s generating capabilities were soon exceeded. Around 1920, Old Dominion Power Company began supplying St. Paul‘s electrical needs. It is interesting to note that John L. Kemmerer, president of Old Dominion Power Company, was also president of the St. Paul Land Company, Inc. John Kemmerer‘s father was Mahlon Kemmerer, a Pennsylvania coal baron with vast holdings in Wise County.
After World War I, the demand for shoe leather returned to pre-war levels. Facing prosecution for violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the meat packing giants (including Swift & Co., corporate parent of the extract plant) agreed to voluntary concessions to end their monopoly in 1921. The companies divested themselves of certain subsidiary operations. A general shake-up followed. Competition increased and consumer prices came down. Responding to these events, the Clinch River Extract Company began operating on a reduced scale and then, in the late 1920’s, the plant shut down.
On July 23, 1929 the plant and its contents were was sold to the Chilhowee Company, Inc., a Delaware-based corporation with extract plants in Tennessee and North Carolina. The two company houses on Buchanan street were included in the sale. Like the Clinch River Extract Company, the Chilhowee Company also had strong ties to Swift & Co. It’s possible this “sale” was equivalent to a modern-day “corporate downsizing” to consolidate operations and reduce excess production capacity.
In the 1930’s, the Chilhowee Company removed the equipment from the extract plant and closed it for good. The property was subsequently acquired by Clinchfield Lumber & Supply. The two company houses on Buchanan Street were sold; one to Henry Clay (of Coeburn Grocery Co,) and the other to Fred Greear. Portions of the plant were sold for salvage, including the adjacent tenant houses that had been built for workers. Portions of the property were rented out for farming purposes.
The two photos below date from the late 1930’s. At left is the extract plant’s former machine shop. Pictured at right are the smokestack and the remains of the boiler building, as well as the building that once housed the company’s power plant and wood grinder.
In 1944, the extract plant property was sold by Carlos Fletcher (owner of Clinch River Lumber & Supply) to Ben Johnson of Bristol, Tennessee. Johnson subdivided the property and began selling building lots. A thriving new section of St. Paul quickly grew up on the site. This new area was colloquially known as “Riverside Drive,” or by its older name, “Sagertown.” In 2019 this community no longer exists. It is a fond memory cherished by older adults who spent their childhood years there.