‘Sealskin Boots and a Printing Press’

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

Published on January 9, 2013
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 Diocesan Synod of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. 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

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’ 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 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.


Twitter: @tara_bradbury