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Chief Henry Yelks - tanner

Chief Henry Yelkus, the one and only tanner in Molalla

By Wes Mitts, offered in research 1980 to the MAHS

Indian Henry Yelkus, last Chief of the Molala Indian Tribe, was Molalla’s first and only tannery operator.  Crude, maybe, but efficient.  Deer were plentiful and early settlers use the meat for the families and the hides for many purposes: clothing, shoe strings, string for many tying purposes, mainly harness repair.  I do not believe that my dad was ever without a buckskin string in his pocket ,and I recall many occasions that a broken bit of harness was kept in service until permanent repairs could be made.

Indian Henry lived on the late John Looney place on the north fork one mile above its confluence with the main river. After hunting season, many farmers and ranchers and other residents of the Molalla area took their dear hides there for him to give them the old Indian Tan using the almost forgotten art. Few whites know this method and very few have ever tried it. This writer has used it and with reasonable success. The resulting product is very much like chamois, which can be purchased at some shops. Many locations as a boy I went with my dad to take some deer hides for Indian Henry to tan. Payment was sometimes cash, but usually some staples, such as flower, fine hay salt used for preservation of hides, sugar or table salt. Fresh or dried deer brains were always welcome as they are the tanning agent, also very young calf brains. On these trips I have seen many hides high in the north fork river which ran in front of his house to soak in different stages of preparation for Tanning.

As regards to the, Indian Henry Yelkus, my impression was that he was amiable, not overly talkative, reasonable peculiar, may to some, yes, but he had his beliefs and mannerisms and believed in them explicitly, yet adapting to some extent to the ways of white man. One of the many true tales was that someone in Molalla noticed that in the Indian didn’t have a pair shoes, and a good soul bought a pair for him.  Later he noticed that the Indian had on his home made moccasins and asked where were the shoes he had bought and he got this reply of “shoes heavy like rocks made feet hurt, I hide in fence corner”. As it came to light, from the top of Robin’s Hill down to what is now Shady Dale ran an old rail fence. Near the top of the hill was a large limb second growth fir in a fence corner and this well concealed spot was his cache. When he did not have a large load of supplies to carry, he usually walked to town, but if the load was too much, a light spring wagon and one horse was used.

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