Like clock-work the Old Leatherman would come up the road. Kids would run out to meet him, and mothers would pack him a sandwich for his long and unending journey. He was so unusual, and in the end he was so beloved. His clothes were made entirely of old boot leather; he made his clothes himself and that it must have weighed about sixty pounds by some accounts.
Even when someone gave him new boots, he simply ripped off the soles and added the leather to his outfit. The Old Leatherman rarely spoke, and some think the few words he did say were in French. Vagabond laws of that era were enacted to ensure that homeless people were not a nuisance to the people of the small villages and towns in Connecticut and New York, but the Old Leatherman was no longer just a nameless vagabond nor the recipient of local shame. He was exempt from these laws. The Old Leatherman was a legend.
From the 1850’s to the 1880’s, Jules Bourglay, as some believe he was called, was simply called the Leatherman. He walked a 365 mile route between towns and villages, completing a circuit exactly every 34 days to the minute, for decades. Along the way he slept in caves, and although many would invite him in, he would simply eat what he was given, and be on his way.
Today travellers love to re-create his route, some even making their own patchwork leather outfit to fully immerse themselves in Leatherman lore. His caves and his simple grave marker are legendary shrines to the unique man who took no money, and found solace in this odd way to live.
I remember growing up visiting my uncle and one of his neighbours who was unusual to me. His neighbour had a big three-wheeled tricycle, and could not speak except in simple noises. He was loud, but also kind. I was both a little afraid of him, and intrigued. For my uncle, his daily guest was royalty. They would sit together on the porch and listen to each other. My uncle demonstrated kindness, and the more I was around them, the more his unusual neighbour was no longer scary to me. His name was Herman and he became a legend in my eyes.
Our communities are full of unusual, odd, scary, and different people. Sometimes we create laws to keep them away, labelling them in ways that make it easier to keep our distance. Sometimes we close our gates quickly if they come around. We, too, might be frightened by people who are hard to understand, or who act differently than we do.
If the Old Leatherman came around your home today, you might be nervous at first, too. Is he a criminal? Did he do a bad thing? Am I safe? But the people who met him came to see another side of him. They went from being nervous, to expectant. They went from being cautious, to generous. He went from a nameless vagabond, to a known legend.
Is there a unique figure in your neighbourhood? Do you know of someone who stands out differently than others? It might be that your community is the birthplace of a legend. It takes a community with the eyes to see others in a special and caring way. We can dismiss people with ease, but it takes a special community to embrace others with care.
I sincerely hope that Chestermere would be the place of legendary beginnings. Relationships matter and neighbours matter; this summer we have a chance to encourage the legends in our midst.