Chattanoogan: Dave Woodward Enjoyed Rewarding Career With Scholze Tannery
Friday, September 14, 2018 - by John Shearer
He originally just wanted to be a football player as a young adult, but Dave Woodward of Signal Mountain ended up working with a different kind of cowhide as a successful tannery operator.
And like the products his firm was producing, his career had its own offering of finishing and refinement along the way, including a dose of good luck and blessings.
“Every night I lay down I thank God how good he has been to me,” Mr. Woodward said.
He had headed the tannery firm a few years after the Scholze family, and during a recent two-hour interview at the Panera downtown accompanied by his wife, Sandra, Mr. Woodward gladly and nostalgically offered intimate details of his career and the business.
The stories and all the mostly positive twists and turns in his business career sounded not unlike those found in the well-circulated memoirs of yesteryear by hotelier/newspaper publisher J.B.
Pound and Coca-Cola bottler Paul B. Carter.
Mr. Woodward said he had grown up in the Greenville, Ala., area and played football for “Shug” Jordan at Auburn University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His freshmen football team coach was Vince Dooley, who would later go on to a successful career as Georgia’s head coach.
Some good experiences happened to Mr. Woodward off the field, too, as he met and married Miss Auburn, the former Sandra O’Kelley of Chattanooga.
After college and marriage, Mr. Woodward had a contract opportunity with the Denver Broncos, but an injury prevented a pro career. So he went to work for his father’s iron ore business. However, his father, Sam Woodward, ended up selling the business after getting a good purchase offer.
Looking for a job, Mr. Woodward soon began working with the Scholze Tannery, which was headed by his father-in-law, Jim O’Kelley Sr. “I didn’t know anything about Scholze Tannery, but I was put through training,” he said.
Mr. O’Kelley Sr. had worked his way up to a top executive position of Scholze Tannery after starting out sweeping the floors had age 17 and quickly showing a lot of enthusiasm working with customers.
The firm, which had been started in 1870s by Robert Scholze, was involved in the finishing of cattle hides to prep them for all kinds of materials primarily related to the horse industry. Materials like vegetable tanning oils were often used.
A fire at the plant just west of what is now South Broad Street in 1932 near the foot of Lookout Mountain forced then-company owner George Scholze Sr. to offer the Southern Saddlery branch of the business to other relatives.
When Mr. Woodward began working for the tannery, the training was in a backward pattern, as he learned first about shipping to see the finished product, and then worked his way backward learning about the other aspects of the operation.
But he tried to help the company move forward by also helping in sales, often traveling days at a time and sometimes using Cincinnati as his base.
As a result, the company’s products ended up in a variety of places. Secretariat, the winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1973, used Scholze Tannery harness leather in his halter, he said.
As part of Mr. Woodward’s efforts to help the company, he learned from an acquaintance and former Vanderbilt football player about all the tannery operations in Argentina and encouraged him to go see them.
Although his father-in-law, Mr. O’Kelley, was initially against the idea, he eventually offered his blessings. In a grueling trip, Mr. Woodward visited a number of places in Argentina related to tanning and the selling of hides, but only after some exhaustive searching did he finally find a charismatic businessman named Dante Beninca.
Argentina allowed businesses to sell only finished hides, but Mr. Woodward was able to purchase from Mr. Beninca mostly finished hides at a much cheaper rate than in the United States.
“Everything he touched turned to gold,” Mr. Woodward said of Mr. Beninca, who died suddenly at a relatively young age.
The U.S. government started forcing businesses like Scholze to pay an extra fee on imported hides, but they later won a reversal and were reimbursed.
This was part of Scholze’s pioneering efforts to focus more on selling imported leather, so they no longer needed the large facility off South Broad Street and built a still-standing warehouse in St. Elmo. It had also become hard from a labor perspective to staff the tannery due to the physical aspect of the work, and that was part of the motivation, he said.
Mr. Woodward had built the warehouse with the help of contractor Jim Hudson, and they entered into a number of business, development and constructions projects together as part of Mr. Woodward’s side work. That included the Sports Page in Brainerd, which was about the first sports bar and restaurant in Chattanooga. He had seen one started by former Auburn teammate Dave Edwards and coach Mike Ditka in Dallas.
As the tannery operation continued over the years, including the development of the Leather Factory mail-order shop for craftsmen, Mr. Woodward said another important aspect was the evolution of ownership. He said his father-in-law eventually became the day-to-day head of the company after the death of George Scholze Sr. in 1947, although George Scholze Sr. was the major stockholder.
Mr. Woodward said that the younger George Scholze was more interested in activities like traveling to Europe rather than trying to operate the tannery.
Feeling a little uncomfortable about his financial standing in the company despite basically operating it, Mr. O’Kelley approached Mr. Scholze Jr. about buying the business. In a bold move, he offered to pay Mr. Scholze each year for the rest of his life the equivalent of what he had made in his best year from the company.
Mr. Scholze agreed, but actually only lived a year or so after the agreement was made, resulting in minimal financial payouts by Mr. O’Kelley.
Mr. Woodward said others also helped in the operation of the tannery, including Gene Carter and Charlie Oliphant, the latter of whom became quite a company historian before his death in 2015 at the age of 94.
Mrs. Woodward recalled that the Scholze family members were all nice and proper to her as she was growing up the child of a company executive. She offered her own special memories, including when the Barnum & Bailey Circus would come to town. The animals would be kept near the tannery for several days, and animals like elephants would be fitted with new harnesses from the tannery, she said.
She also recalled that Mrs. George (Elizabeth) Scholze Sr. was a very prim and proper and dignified lady. This is despite the fact that her parties at her home at 282 Stephenson Ave. on behalf of the Chattanooga Music Club were portrayed in an old Saturday Evening Post article as being lively affairs.
Regarding the end history of Scholze Tannery and Mr. Woodward’s involvement with it, it was later sold to Dick Olson of Colorado, and it eventually became part of a big conglomerate called Outdoor Sports.
It was later bought by Brown Shoe company, which later sold off parts of it, and Mr. Woodward bought back the Scholze Tannery part of it.
“I thought I’d signed my whole life away,” he said.
He eventually closed the tannery in the early 2000s, but, in contrast to some businesses when they are being shut down, he had been able to make money from aspects like the razing and selling off of the old tannery site.
Now in his late 70s, Mr. Woodward feels blessed at the work he was able to do with the tannery and the life he has been able to enjoy to date.
“No. 1, I had the greatest mother and father in the world,” he said. “I wanted to play football and went to Auburn. I met Sandra, Miss Auburn, and I got into the leather business and I met Jim (Hudson).”