The origins of the Breithaupt Leather Company date back to 1843 when Liborius Breithaupt, a fourth-generation sheepskin tanner from Allendorf, Germany, brought his wife Catherine and his 16-year-old son Philip Louis to a new life in Buffalo, New York. Here, Breithaupt set up a tannery which he operated until his death in 1851.
Philip Louis, who then adopted “Louis” as his given name, took over operating the Buffalo tannery in partnership with Jacob F. Schoellkoppf, and in the course of his business he made several trips to Waterloo County in search of sources for both hides and the bark needed for the tanning process. On one of those trips he became acquainted with the Jacob Hailer family and Hailer’s daughter Catherine, whom he married in 1853.
In 1857 Breithaupt started a tannery in Berlin (now Kitchener) with land obtained from his father-in-law Jacob Hailer. That tannery was to have been run by his friend and brother-in-law Rev. Jacob Wagner but Wagner’s early death prompted Breithaupt to move his family to Berlin in 1861. There, he built a large tanning business and became a prominent citizen. At the time of his death in 1880, he was Mayor of Berlin. His eldest son, Louis Jacob Breithaupt, then took over the operation of the various family businesses, including the tannery and related companies.
By 1890 the organization, originally known as Louis Breithaupt & Co., became a limited company and expanded to take over a variety of other tanneries and leather businesses. That same year, the third “Louis Breithaupt” – Louis Orville – was born and his father, Louis Jacob, expressed the hope that his son would “live long . . . and be a tanner,” which he did, becoming President of the tannery in the 1930s.
The years before and after World War I saw changes in the leather industry when substitutes for leather, such as rubber, were beginning to occupy the footwear market. A second reason for these changes was the advent of automobile transportation, which meant horses became redundant and as a result so too did the leather horse-harness and saddle industry. However, the Breithaupt Leather Company by that time specialized in shoe leather and glove leather and during the War expanded to the largest size in its history. New tanneries and other aspects of the tanning business were constructed in Penetang, Listowel, and Hastings and by 1921 the company operated five tanneries.
The decade of the 1920s saw the leather business decline generally in North America and during the Depression years, Louis Orville took over the business. Production increased during the World War II but the synthetic materials perfected during the war quickly replaced leather and the local tannery ceased production in 1950.
Following the death of L.O. Breithaupt in 1951, the “fourth Louis” – Louis Paul Breithaupt – took over the various businesses. By 1967, the Breithaupt Leather Company was sold and an era ended. Happily, the bell on the cupola of the Adam Street tannery will now be part of the historical artifacts exhibited at the new Waterloo Region Museum.
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