Leather-Working Mecca

An old cliché tells us familiarity breeds contempt. So, how about ignorance? Does not familiarity breed that, too? Well, in my case, the answer is an unapologetic yes. Let me explain, focusing on boyhood South Deerfield.

At the southwest corner of Pleasant and North Main, a short distance up the road from my earliest home and the home of my father and grandfather as well, stood a worn, two-story, clapboarded industrial building painted a dull, flaky red and showing its age. Situated on the east bank of Bloody Brook just above the Pleasant Street bridge, the late 19th-century building’s gabled ends faced east and west, with a parking lot off Main Street on the south side. My friends and I called it the plastic shop because it was indeed operating as such then. My father, grandfather and spinster great aunt all knew it as the Arms’ pocketbook shop, which closed in 1950, three years before my birth.

In the morning shadow of this tired old building I learned to skate and fish. We’d clear the snow with shovels to skate. Then, come summer, we’d dunk worms below red and white bobbers, catching suckers and bullheads from a launching pad near a giant weeping willow standing tall and wide on the west bank. Across from that large, messy tree, raw, rust-colored, factory effluent oozed from a six- or eight-inch pipe, keeping open a small, D-shaped patch of water we carefully avoided no matter how cold it got. I can only imagine in horror the carcinogenic toxicity of that disgusting liquid waste flowing straight from factory to brook back in those days of unchecked industrial air and water pollution. Yes, those were the days when a smart man would not dip so much as his little toe into the river below Sunderland Bridge.

The reason I mention the boyhood building on the corner of Main and Pleasant, it long ago demolished and replaced by a modern, one-story Cowan’s Auto Parts store, is a recent eBay purchase. How better to occupy time during this tedious COVID-19 shutdown than taking daily spins around the online auction site in search of local treasure? From near and far, it shows up week after week. A steady flow keeps on keepin’ on.

What I was excited to find a few weeks back was a 19th-century, three-fold, leather wallet in remarkably good condition. What was its significance. Well, stamped across an inner face was a rectangular impression reading “Made by Chas Arms, South Deerfield, Mass.” Wow! That caught my attention. Though I immediately knew what it was, it was, in all my years living in the factory neighborhood, not to mention many old Arms homes and those of the workforce, never, not once, had I lain eyes on one of its products. I soon discovered that the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum had a worn wallet and a pouch of another style among its collections. But that didn’t matter. The museum pieces had escaped me before I went looking. 

How could I resist jumping into the auction? Nope. Not a chance. In fact, I aggressively pursued my interest by making an offer and – cha-ching – a week and $61.13 later, the carefully packaged wallet arrived in my mailbox from the southcentral Wisconsin town of Reedsburg. Owner Sarah Riedel of the downtown store Antiques on Main had rescued it at an estate sale, found mixed among military papers in a dusty old dresser drawer. It’s pretty typical of the way such items come to light and return to the communities where they were created as collectors’ items. Fact is that the timing of this discovery couldn’t have been better. Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration is a short three years away. Maybe I’ll loan it to the Historical Commission for some sort of a South Deerfield pocketbook-factory display.

Talk about igniting a fascinating adventure down South Deerfield’s memory lane, the wallet did just that, while also stirring my ever-ready genealogical-research juices. Arms Family roots stretch as deep as any in South Deerfield annals, beginning with progenitor William Arms, who came to the Connecticut Valley in 1676 as a soldier under Capt. William Turner of “Falls Fight” fame. Later, the Arms family was among the first to settle the Deerfield village first known as Bloody Brook during the second half of the 18th century. Even better, the wallet discovery and purchase pulled me back into my family roots in the local leather-working trade, tanner and shoemaker families that evolved into Industrial Revolution cogs at the Arms Manufacturing Co. factory. The South Deerfield manufactory was a big deal in its day, in a class with John Russell’s Green River Works (cutlery) as a Franklin County industry, according to online data published by Greenfield’s Museum of Our Industrial History.

The Arms factory was on center stage a short distance from downtown South Deerfield, where it cranked out fine leather pocketbooks, bill books, letter books and card cases. The products were shipped to New York and sold nationally. Before the railroad, Arms products were shipped by oxcart to Hartford, where they picked up a barge to New York City for distribution. Production and shipping dramatically increased once the Connecticut River Railroad went through town. The freights would stop at loading docks between the Conway and Elm Street crossings, alongside today’s Leader Home Centers hardware store and lumber yard.

Although it’s impossible to piece together the entire picture at a time when Old Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries are closed for the pandemic, there is enough online information available to get a general picture. Perhaps, were I an Ancestry.com subscriber, I could from home assemble some of the pocketbook factory’s workforce from online census records. But without that luxury at my fingertips, I must wait for library access once COVID-19 passes.

In the meantime, I must rely on what I already knew and what I have recently discovered by reading and discussion with knowledgeable sources. It’s not like I came into this discovery mission totally uninformed. I entered the journey with a general understanding of the pre-industrial leather-working trade due to genealogical research into my Sanderson, Arms, Graham and Woodruff families, all of which display strong veins of tanners and shoemakers working their trade in Whately, Deerfield and Sunderland.

It gets even closer. Each morning at daybreak, I crack open my eyes looking at two Victorian Woodruff sisters – great-grandmother Fannie, born 1865, and older Marriette, born 1849 – peering down at me from their framed perches on my upstairs bedroom’s north wall. Plus, several times a day on my way to the study, I pass two earlier photo portraits of their parents – Asa Franklin Woodruff and Eliza Arms – framed on each side of the fan-lit front door. Asa, a New Hartford, Conn., shoemaker, married into Eliza’s South Deerfield shoemaking family in 1842 and settled in town. They would have been South Deerfield neighbors of Dennis Arms, the pocketbook shop’s founder, and Eliza’s grandfather. Dennis Arms’ son Charles, Eliza’s first cousin, bought out brothers William S. and James C. in 1861 and put Arms Manufacturing on the map.

Is it possible that Asa Wooodruff, buried under a tall, obelisk in the downtown Sugarloaf Cemetery, worked for the Arms pocketbook factory? Can’t say at this point. A work in progress. Although more information is needed, I wouldn’t bet against it. That’ll have to wait for now. There’s time. I’ll wait to dig when the diggin’s better. No great rush. Deerfield’s 350th isn’t until 2023. Who knows what great stuff will emerge by then?

Which reminds me of a sobering thought. I was a 20-year-old celebrant of he town’s 300th birthday. Now this. No denying I’m getting old.

Interesting how this latest research mission began with a simple eBay keyword search in the comforts of home, a search I’ve executed many times over the past 20 years. Never a waste of time, this particular foray just happened to produce exceptional fruit. It happens. That’s why I keep going back for more. It’s fun. Sometimes rewarding.

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