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UBER TANNING COMPANY BANKRUPT


updecreek

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Somewhere in Minnesota, there's warehouse with thousands of deer, elk and moose hides in various states of processing and preservation.

And throughout the country, there are hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, angry hunters who cherish those hides -- and haven't been able to get them back.

At least, not yet.

The mess is the result of the collapse of Uber Tanning Co., which operated out of Owatanna and Ham Lake, the last-of-its kind operation in the Lower 48 with a storied Minnesota history dating back more than a century.

The bad news is that Uber's owners, Jared and Shawna Rinerson, filed for bankruptcy, walking away from the business and their obligations to hunters who had entrusted them with their hides -- and had paid for work to be done.

The good news is that a deal might be afoot to restart the tanning operations and get the hides back to the hunters.

A key person involved in Uber's finances discussed the potential deal under condition of anonymity because the deal isn't done and because no one involved is prepared to handle what could be a deluge of phone calls from anxious hunters.

"Everyone with a cellphone on their hip is going to call, and we can't handle that right now," said the person, who also spoke under condition that none of the businesses involved in the potential deal be named.

The trepidation is understandable.

A bankruptcy court official and the Rinersons' attorney said their offices have received "hundreds" of

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calls from upset hunters in the past few weeks after the mass mailing of notification of the bankruptcy petition, which lists 722 creditors, mostly Uber customers.

Many big-game hunters eat the meat but donate or discard the hides. Many others, however, have the hides tanned, often turning them into clothing, gun cases, gloves or other apparel.

The connection to the hide runs deeper than to a pair of jeans bought at a department store.

"This was the once-in-a-lifetime, fly-in moose hunt," said Greg Solberg, a hunter from Roseville. "It was expensive, and it was an important memory, and I don't want those hides to go to waste."

After a Canadian moose hunt with a friend in October, Solberg paid Uber $245 to tan two moose hides. He's been trying to get them back ever since.

Solberg, and others like him, have had no luck.

CUSTOMERS NOT TOLD

This summer, Jared Rinerson, who bought the Owatonna-based company in 2006 from the Uber family, walked away from the business, said his attorney, Barbara May.

"I know he feels terrible about this, and there are all these people who trusted the business with their hides and now they can't get them," said May, who also represented former Twin Cities auto mogul Denny Hecker in his bankruptcy.

Interviews with Uber customers indicate they were never notified that the company, their payments or their hides were in jeopardy. In March, the company moved its offices to Ham Lake from Owatonna, where six generations of Ubers had tanned and processed hides. Throughout the spring and summer, some customers who called about their orders were told the move was causing delays. In July, emails and phone calls stopped being answered, customers said.

"We weren't told anything," said Donald Plaschko, a deer hunter from Woodbury who had sent numerous hides to Uber over several decades, including three or four after last year's deer season.

"I have no idea where my hides are or if I'm ever going to get them back," Plaschko said.

The websites of Uber Tanning and Trophy Hides, its apparel shop, remained up this week, soliciting orders, with no mention of any troubles.

The situation earlier this month prompted the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota to issue an "F" rating for the company.

Rinerson could not be reached for comment.

When May's name and number appeared on the mailed bankruptcy documents, she said, she quickly learned how passionate hunters are about their animal hides.

"People call crying because 'This is my grandson's first deer,' and so on," May said. "To every one of them I say, 'I wish I can help you, but I can't.' "

LEGAL LIMBO

The hides appear to be in a state of legal limbo.

They're owned by the hunters, were being processed by Uber, but came into the possession of landlords and banks when the Rinersons filed for bankruptcy.

Further complicating matters is that the Rinersons, not the Uber company itself, filed for bankruptcy, said May and Timothy D. Moratzka, the trustee appointed by the bankruptcy court to try to recover money for the unsecured creditors, which include Uber customers.

"Uber never owned hides but had possession," Moratzka said. "They don't have possession anymore, so it's not really a matter for the bankruptcy court."

The Rinersons filed for personal Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection Aug. 27 in federal court in Minneapolis. The couple listed more than $996,000 in liabilities, including Uber's debts, and $264,000 in assets, including their Ham Lake home, court documents show.

In other words, they claim they're broke. Chapter 7 bankruptcy is liquidation, not reorganization.

The Rinersons are scheduled to appear Tuesday, Sept. 18, in bankruptcy court for a creditors meeting.

Moratzka said he plans to question Jared Rinerson about returning the hides to hunters and indicated he could support a deal that would allow that. It's unlikely the Rinersons would get any money out of any such deal.

HOPE FOR HIDES

The financials reported in the bankruptcy suggest it's unlikely customers will get their money back either. Some, like Plaschko, have been able to get credit card charges reversed.

But there is hope for the hides.

The person involved in the possible sale said he believes most, if not all, of Uber's inventory has been rounded up from the Owatonna and Ham Lake locations and brought to a "secure location." Many of the hides can be tied to individual customers. He said the hides that have not yet been preserved through the tanning process are not spoiled.

Ideally, the potential deal can include a process to notify customers of the status of their hides and, if necessary, finish work on them. In other cases, final products might be available for shipping, the official said.

The deal might allow tannery operations to resume in time for the fall hunting season, he said, emphasizing that nothing is definite.

ONE OF A KIND

Bowhunting for deer in Minnesota and Wisconsin begins Saturday, Sept. 15, and for those who want to have their hides tanned and turned into custom-made garments by American workers, there's been nary an alternative to Uber for several years.

Since the first Ubers emigrated from Prussia in the 1800s, six generations of the family ran the tannery on the banks of the Straight River in Owatonna. A showroom and sewing operations had operated since the first half of the 20th century out of a building in a residential neighborhood in town. Workers there, many with more than 40 years of experience, still referred to "Grandpa Uber."

In the frontier days, such tanneries sprouted throughout the Midwest, serving homesteaders and farmers. But as mass-produced clothing became more affordable, the tanneries gradually disappeared.

When the Pioneer Press profiled Uber Tanning Co. last fall, Rinerson said his company was the last of its kind in the continental United States. The Pioneer Press was unable to find another example of such a business.

For the Uber family, the collapse of the their namesake has been difficult to watch, even though no family members had any role in it.

"I felt disappointed and sad because of the history of the company and because we still had a lot of work to do for the customers," said Lanny Uber, who was president of the company when the board agreed to sell it to Rinerson in 2006. "We thought we had found the right party to continue on the traditions, and that appeared to be the case, but as time has told, obviously it wasn't."

Uber wasn't aware of a potential deal to salvage the company until the Pioneer Press informed him of it.

"I think you gave me the best news yet, which is maybe those traditions can continue after all," he said.

Dave Orrick can be reached at 651-228-5512. Follow him at twitter.com/OutdoorsNow

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I don't have anything there right now, but I feel for those of you who do. I've had many hides tanned there over the years and know what a special thing it is to have your own hides taken from your own deer.

A sad day for Midwest hunters. frown

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I do have hides there 2 full moose hides and 4 deer all had been tanned we brought them there because they really made some nice stuff, and slippers wear like tires when made from moose hide. I am still hoping to get back the hides so we can have stuff made but we have lost all hope for our deposit we gave them. I am hoping to at least get back the leather.

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