Monday, November 17, 2008

Leather man

When Mercury Online Editor Eileen Faust suggested I blog about this book, I had to laugh. The title "Leather Man" to me conjures an image of the gaunt, older fellow my family so nicknamed because he likes to sun himself every single day of the summer, with no sunscreen or shade, wearing only a Speedo, all the while chain-smoking cigarettes, and, I'm pretty sure drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, on the beach next to my mom's lakehouse in Western Pa.
Leather Man has been sunning himself to a bronze crisp in the same spot, on a tri-fold lounger, for probably my entire lifetime. Incidentally, he has a similarly sun-worshipping lady friend we call "Leatherette." I saw them both last over Labor DAy, in their usual spot beside the lake. I joked with my mom, as we sat in the shade playing cards, that Leather Man is probably only in his mid-40s, but looks about 90.
Eileen, however, was talking about this intriguing book on a Connecticut legend, the Old Leather Man, who supposedly roamed around in a crude leather outfit. Incidentally, Eileen is a fan of folklore, and just last week explained to me what the New Jersey Devil was (is?) in her home state.

Book chronicles hunt for lore on 'Old Leather Man'


Record-Journal of Meriden
SOUTHINGTON, Conn. (AP) - The first known photograph of the Old Leather Man was taken without his consent.
It shows a blurry image of his silhouette complete with walking stick, hat and leather bag. The photo was taken in Forestville by a photographer who concealed himself behind a blanket and then snapped the picture when the Old Leather Man was offered a plug of tobacco.
The image was published in the Meriden Daily Republican in May 1885.
That photo and 19 others of the Old Leather Man can be found in a new book by Dan W. DeLuca of Meriden called "Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend." It contains pictures, memories and newspaper reports of the wandering man who walked a circuit between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers in the late 1800s.
DeLuca said he's recently determined that the Old Leather Man stayed in a rock shelter in Southington on land that is now the YMCA's Camp Sloper, near East Street.
The shelter was secure enough for the Old Leather Man to survive the four-day long "Blizzard of 1888," when an estimated 50 inches of snow fell. A newspaper article written three days after the blizzard confirmed that he had weathered the storm.
"The Old Leather Man put in an appearance yesterday morning, stopping for breakfast at W.M. Fowler's. He was headed east and looked as well as he usually does," the Penny Press of East Berlin reported on March 17.
Facts about the early life of the historical figure are not known, but the Old Leather Man became well known to residents of Connecticut and New York around 1856, according to DeLuca's research.
The author writes that "Old Leathery," as he was sometimes called, started his famous clockwise circle of travel around 1883, making ".... A regular route of 365 miles every 34 days, until he died on March 20, 1889."
DeLuca has spent the past 20 years researching the Old Leather Man, whose real name is not known. He discovered the first-known photograph at the Hamden Historical Society and was able to connect it to a specific date because he had read a newspaper report about the blanket trick in Forestville.
"There was only one with that image. I knew when I found the photograph exactly what it was," DeLuca said.
The most iconographic photo of the Old Leather Man — which is the cover illustration for DeLuca's book — was taken by a 19-year-old photographer from Branford, James Rogers.
"He grew up seeing the Old Leather Man come through town and he got up the nerve to start talking to him," DeLuca said. Rogers was one of the first photographers for whom the historical figure posed.
DeLuca's research was greatly helped, he said, when the son of historian LeRoy W. Foote donated his father's collection of Old Leather Man artifacts to DeLuca.
The son, Wayne H. Foote of Middlebury, said his father's interest in the historical figure began in 1940. LeRoy Foote's research was an offshoot of his interest in caves, Wayne said, that grew to include the Old Leather Man's rock shelters.
"I'm happy if the effort my father made in his hobby continues (DeLuca's) historic research," Wayne Foote said.
"I like to walk and wander," he continued, "and I often think of the Old Leather Man."
LeRoy Foote and his wife, Sarah, gave talks about the historical figure and created a slide show that was presented in several towns, Wayne Foote said.
LeRoy Foote also had replicas made of the Old Leather Man's coat, hat and walking stick that were used in the show. After LeRoy Foote's death, his wife continued the presentations with some help from Wayne Foote.
"I would put on the hat and coat for a dramatic affect at the end of the show," he said.
DeLuca compiled about 400 pages of research and presented it about two years ago to editors at Wesleyan University Press.
"With (LeRoy) Foote's information and photos, and what I've put together, it cleared up a lot of little things I didn't know," DeLuca said. DeLuca talked with the editors about the possibility of publishing the book.
"They said 'yes' almost immediately," he recalls.
"I was afraid that others after me wouldn't do this," DeLuca said. "If everybody in every single town talked to the old-timers, we could uncover more information and more shelters."
The Old Leather Man's shelters that are accessible to the public are listed in the back of the book. The list includes Mount Higby and Hubbard Park in Meriden, Fann's Shelter in Hamden and two along the Mattatuck Trail near Watertown.
A review of the book by Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni is complimentary of DeLuca's research.
"The Old Leather Man was an enigma in the later 1880s and remains so today," wrote Bellantoni. "Dan DeLuca has compiled his decades of research into a most comprehensive account, with photographs and maps of this mysterious, punctual and unique character's travels through New York and Connecticut."
"Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend" was expected to arrive in stores by the second week of November.


Scooter Kitten said...

The Jersey Devil is. He doesn't die.

Anonymous said...

The Leather Man was first revealed to the public in the popular Westchester newspaper The Patent Trader, edited at the time by a dashing young editor who now brightens the pages of The Mercury.
A free year's subscription to anyone who can name that journalist...

Dan W. DeLuca said...

The Old Leather Man was revealed to the public in THE PATENT TRADER by William H. Sanders
January 10, 1957