‘Seal­skin Boots and a Print­ing Press’

Irv­ing Letto tells the life story of Canon John Thomas Richards, one puz­zle piece at a time

The Labradorian - - FRONT PAGE - BY TARA BRAD­BURY

Irv­ing Letto met Canon John Thomas Richards just once — as a baby, when Richard held Letto in his arms as he chris­tened him in Oc­to­ber 1944.

Though the pair never met again, Letto has felt a life­long con­nec­tion with the Angli­can cler­gy­man. Grow­ing up in L’Anse au Clair, Letto says Richards was well-known on both sides of the Strait of Belle Isle, and in 1960, Letto at­tended Canon J. T. Richards Me­mo­rial School in Flower’s Cove.

“Ev­ery­one knew about him and I heard about him al­most ev­ery day, ev­ery week,” Letto says. “When I started do­ing re­li­gious stud­ies at MUN, I was do­ing a course in New­found­land re­li­gion so it was just quite nat­u­ral for me to do a pa­per on Canon Richards.”

As part of that as­sign­ment, Letto vis­ited Richards’ wife, Dora, for an in­ter­view. She pre­sented Letto with pa­pers and jour­nals be­long­ing to her hus­band, who had died in 1958, and his con­nec­tion with Richards grew stronger.

“I don’t know why she gave them to me, other than she was so pleased to have some­one vis­it­ing from the Labrador,” Letto says. “It be­came al­most like a trust to me. I be­gan re­search­ing, and I got things from other mem­bers of the fam­ily and I re­al­ized just the type of per­son he was; how in­volved he was in the so­cial devel­op­ment of the area and the eco­nomic devel­op­ment, too.”

Born in Bare­need, Richards devel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with the North af­ter spend­ing a sum­mer with his fa­ther in In­dian Tickle, ac­cord­ing to the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of New­found­land. In 1892, at the age of 17, Richards met Wil­fred Gren­fell on his first trip north, and later in his life, the pair be­came close friends.

As a cler­gy­man, Richards was ap­pointed to Flower’s Cove in 1904 and made dean of the Strait of Belle Isle 10 years later. It was in Flower’s Cove that his so­cial and eco­nomic devel­op­ment projects be­gan, Letto ex­plains.

“He, prob­a­bly fol­low­ing Dr. Gren­fell’s lead, started de­vel­op­ing the seal­skin boot in­dus­try. He would buy seal skins from Bowring Brothers in St. John’s, $1 each, I think he paid for them, and he would give them out to the men to cure, and that would take five or six weeks,” Letto says. “Out of a large skin, they would get five or six pairs of boots, and the women did the sewing.

“They sold them on the half, they called it: one pair was sold and the fam­ily kept the money, and the other pair, he sold for him­self. Af­ter paying for the skins, he cleared a lit­tle money, and he used that money to help the really poor and put it to­wards the build­ing of the par­son­age and the church in Flower’s Cove.”

To this day, the Angli­can church in Flower’s Cove is known lo­cally as the “seal­skin boot church.” Richards was res­i­dent at the church for 42 years.

Richards was a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the church mag­a­zine, the Dioce­san Times, as well as The Evening Tele­gram, of­ten writ­ing for so­cial pro­grams and ed­u­ca­tion. He did have some success in the lat­ter area, Letto says, man­ag­ing to get the 67 cents per child given for ed­u­ca­tion in the St. Barbe area in­creased by a few cents.

A cou­ple of his other projects didn’t work out as well as planned. In 1910, Letto writes, Richards made a pro­posal to Amer­i­can phi­lan­thropist John D. Rock­e­feller, ask­ing for $400,000 to build a board­ing school in Forteau, on the Labrador coast, but was de­nied. About five years later, he at­tempted to es­tab­lish “A Hub­bard Me­mo­rial,” named for Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and ad­ven­turer Leonidas Hub­bard, who died trag­i­cally dur­ing a ca­noe ex­pe­di­tion. The ex­pe­di­tion and Hub­bard’s death is chron­i­cled in “The Lure of the Labrador Wild,” a book by his com­pan­ion on the trip, Dil­lon Wal­lace.

“The Hub­bard Me­mo­rial was a pre­sen­ta­tion he was do­ing, mainly ap­peal­ing to peo­ple in the United States, to get money to put more clergy on the Labrador,” Letto ex­plains. “He was say­ing this was a great way to im­mor­tal­ize the per­son who had died. Un­for­tu­nately, that was at the be­gin­ning of the First World War and was not a very good time to pro­mote that, and ob­vi­ously he wasn’t suc­cess­ful, but it did show his ef­forts to try and get things for the peo­ple.”

Letto dis­cov­ered through read­ing Richards’ 1906 jour­nal that he had owned a print­ing press, which he used to print his chil­dren’s page; a lit­tle leaflet given out to the con­gre­ga­tion, with hymns, po­ems and sto­ries. It took a bit of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but Letto even­tu­ally tracked down the type of press Richards had owned, and he com­mented on it on his web­site and Face­book page. He even­tu­ally re­ceived a re­ply from an an­tique col­lec­tor friend, who pre­sented what’s be­lieved to be Richards’ press, to him.

“We looked at the press and saw that this par­tic­u­lar one had a date on it of 1928. This was prob­a­bly his sec­ond copy, be­cause ev­ery­thing seems to point to the fact that it was his, in­clud­ing that it was bought in Bare­need. But we can­not prove that,” Letto says.

Letto, a re­tired cler­gy­man him­self, now liv­ing in Nova Sco­tia, re­cently pub­lished a bi­og­ra­phy of Richards’ life, called “Seal­skin Boots and a Print­ing Press: Piec­ing To­gether the Life of Canon J. T. Richards,” based on his re­search. Just be­fore Christ­mas, he came to St. John’s and pre­sented the print­ing press, a pair of seal­skin boots, and all Richards’ jour­nals and doc­u­ments to the Dioce­san Synod of East­ern New­found­land and Labrador, to be kept in the ar­chives. Right Rev. Cyrus Pit­man, Bishop of east­ern New­found­land and Labrador, ac­cepted them on be­half of the dio­cese.

Letto hopes the doc­u­ments will as­sist oth­ers in their re­search, whether on Richards or their own fam­ily tree.

“As (Richards) trav­elled, he car­ried th­ese lit­tle jour­nals with him, and he wrote down ev­ery ser­vice that he had; buri­als, bap­tisms, and mar­riages. When he got home, they were copied into the of­fi­cial reg­is­ters, so some­times th­ese jour­nals are more ac­cu­rate than the of­fi­cial,” Letto says.

Also in­cluded in the doc­u­ments is the orig­i­nal, hand-writ­ten copy of Richards’ epic poem, “Gren­fell’s Mono­logue on the Ice Pan,” writ­ten af­ter hear­ing from Gren­fell the story of his es­cape from an ice pan in north­ern New­found­land in 1908.

Letto, who edited the publi­ca­tion of Richards’ “Snap­shots of Gren­fell” in 1989 (re­pub­lished last year), feels he’s fin­ished when it comes to writ­ing about Richards, but is still hop­ing to col­lect some miss­ing mem­o­ra­bilia about the Canon. In par­tic­u­lar, he’s look­ing for edi­tions of Richards’

Canon J. T. Richards

chil­dren’s page — there are nearly 40 edi­tions, he says, although he only has five.

“I’m hop­ing that peo­ple will dis­cover th­ese. I think they prob­a­bly still ex­ist in peo­ple’s fam­ily bi­bles or in some col­lec­tion, and they don’t know what they have. If we could ever col­lect all th­ese to­gether, we would have a lot of in­ter­est­ing anec­dotes about the North­ern Penin­sula from about 1906 to 1945.”

Any­one who feels they might be able to

“I’m hop­ing that peo­ple will dis­cover th­ese. I think they prob­a­bly still ex­ist in peo­ple’s

fam­ily bi­bles or in some col­lec­tion, and they don’t know

what they have. If we could ever col­lect all th­ese to­gether,

we would have a lot of in­ter­est­ing anec­dotes about the North­ern Penin­sula from about

1906 to 1945.”

as­sist Letto can con­tact him by phone at 902-407-2593, or by email at irv­in­gletto@bel­laliant.net.

“Seal­skin Boots and a Print­ing Press,” pub­lished by Friesen Press, is avail­able at Pipers stores, and on­line at Ama­zon.ca. tbrad­bury@thetele­gram.com

Twit­ter: @tara_brad­bury

Tara Brad­bury/the Tele­gram — Photo by

Irv­ing Letto, au­thor of “Seal­skin Boots and a Print­ing Press: Piec­ing To­gether the Life of Canon J. T. Richards” stands with ar­ti­facts he re­cently turned over to the lo­cal Angli­can dio­cese. Th­ese in­clude jour­nals and doc­u­ments be­long­ing to Richards, a pair of seal­skin boots and a print­ing press, be­lieved to have been owned by Richards.

Photo by Tara Brad­bury/the Tele­gram

Jour­nals be­long­ing to Canon J. T. Richards, Angli­can min­is­ter, ed­u­ca­tor and so­cial ad­vo­cate on the North­ern Penin­sula, who passed away in 1958. —

Tele­gram Photo by Tara Brad­bury/the

A pair of seal skin boots given by Letto to the dio­cese. —

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