In an age when robots vacuum our rugs, build our cars and remove our appendixes, there are still people who use their hands to shape our world, connect us to the past and ease us into the future.
In Brasher Falls, Jack Johnson has a spiritual connection with the lacrosse sticks he crafts from hickory wood.
Julie Pratt practices a type of alchemy in Lisbon where she combines fats, lye, herbs and oils to produce soaps that cleans and nourish the skin.
A suit jacket hand-stiched by Frank Shattuck in Sackets Harbor draws upon the lessons he learned from spending years with master tailors, watching, learning, absorbing.
In Alexandria Bay, Gary Scholes plays with time, by bringing back to life clocks whose movements have succumbed to the ravages of age, dirt and over-eager winders.
Each approaches their craft with a mix of muscle memory, mental focus and a link to artisans of the past.
Tune in Sunday night for this installation of “More to the Story: They Still Do That,” featuring interviews with Jack Johnson, Julie Pratt, Garry Scholes and Frank Shattuck. The show will be broadcast on WPBS at 6:30 p.m. It airs again at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 3, or can be view here: https://watch.wpbstv.org/video/they-still-do-that-yctgsb/
For Mr. Johnson, lacrosse is a part of his native heritage, but he didn’t start his life as craftsman carving and shaping sticks. His original art was basket weaving.
“I did an apprenticeship in Akwesasne for probably eight years,” Mr. Johnson said.
It was only after he bought an old wooden lacrosse stick that he turned to the sport that he grew up with.
“We’ve always played lacrosse in Akwesasne, so it was a big part of our heritage,” he said.
Mr. Johnson does everything: he harvests the trees, he breaks them down, he bends the stick, weaves the basket and even makes a traditional gut wall that connects the stick’s hook back to the shaft.
“This is cowhide,” he said, pointing to the gutwall. “It’s probably only maybe two or three people left — original Native American makers — that make this sidewall. Everybody else just uses string and they put shellac on. It’s not the way I was taught. So that’s the way I do it. It keeps it original.”
Mr. Johnson learned the original, native craft by spending time with Alfie Jacques, a legendary lacrosse stick maker from the Onondaga Nation near Fayetteville.
Mr. Jacques recognized that Mr. Johnson was serious about producing sticks in the traditional manner and invited him down to learn the craft.
“You work with someone who has been doing it for 55 years … and his father did it and they’re legends.” Mr. Johnson said. “It puts you ahead 10 years in your progress when you work with somebody that’s been doing it so long.”
It takes about 10 months to go from tree to lacrosse stick,” Mr. Johnson said. After breaking the trees down into usable lengths he uses a homemade steamer to make the wood pliable enough to bend it into the correct shape. A drawknife is used to carve the stick into its final form.
While plastic and metal lacrosse sticks helped spread and modernized the game, a traditional lacrosse stick is more than just a piece of sports equipment.
For Native Americans, Mr. Johnson said, lacrosse is medicine.
“So, when you create a stick, this is my medicine,” he said. “When I am here and I’m making sticks and I’m feeling good, everything is good.”
A wooden stick requires care that a modern stick does not, so owners become more attached.
“When we play, we keep our sticks close,” he said. “A lot of people sleep with them, they keep them right in the house. It’s kind of a tradition.”
Attagirl Soaps was born from a love of history and learning.
“My parents instilled in us a love of learning and reading and trying things,” Ms. Pratt said in her neat little manufacturing space in the back of her garage. “So, amongst other things, I wanted to learn how to make soap, It has a history factor.”
Ms. Pratt limits the variety of soaps she makes to about 10.
“I try to keep it small so I understand each bar and what it’s going to do rather than making 50 bars of soap and I just sell because this is rose scent, this is lilac scent. I don’t sell like that.”
The first soap she made was a pine tar soap.
“It’s historical,” she said. “The pioneers made it. Native Americans used pine tar for healing purposes, and it’s funky. It’s just so different.”
Making soap full time is recent. Ms. Pratt had been living in Syracuse, going to school part time, working full time at a restaurant and making soap to sell at craft fairs.
Her experience as a restaurant manager informed her that she liked being in control and didn’t like people telling her what to do.
“So I really enjoy being my own boss, being in control, making the decisions,” she said. “The only downside is if it has to get done, you have to do it. You can’t delegate it, because I don’t have anyone working under me.”
Ms. Pratt has a book full of recipes she has developed over the years. But, each variety of soap is made up essentially of two ingredients — lye and fat. Soap makers have to be cautious when handling the lye, but once it is mixed with the fat it is neutralized, she said.
After the soap has been mixed it requires time to cure. Cure times can be anywhere from two weeks to three months.
Packaging is simple because there really isn’t any.
“I have always wanted to keep it as simple as possible,” she said. “One reason is simply because I don’t want to take four hours to sit down and hand wrap everything. So I just have small little bags that people can put them in. And then the other packaging I use are Ball jars and reusable items.”
Ms. Pratt sells her soap mainly at farmers markets, but also on the online Etsy site and sells in a few retail locations. She also teaches soap making in her workshop and conducts art classes at Lake St. Lawrence Gallery in Waddington and at the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg.
The suit coats that Mr. Shattuck creates in his Sackets Harbor workshop are the result of a techniques passed down through generations of tailors.
“I was selling real estate in Syracuse a long time ago and I couldn’t stand it. So I went to two old tailors that made both my grandfathers’ suits and I would hang out in their shop all day because I liked them and they liked me. And one day I just started working with them. I picked up a thimble and that’s how it all started. “
After seven years, the old tailors, who were twins and 90 years old, retired when they lost their lease. Mr. Shattuck moved to New York to continue his education.
The head tailor of the first shop in which he worked opened up his own shop and took Mr. Shattuck with him.
“He took the time to show me all of the oldest, old, old, minute little hand work secrets that all the old tailors knew. And that’s what I still do today.”
Saying his jackets are handmade is not an exaggeration. He cuts the material with 100-year-old scissors and only a few seams are done on his 80-year-old sewing machine.
“If you went to an old tailor shop in Sicily in the year 1900, everything I do, they do,” Mr. Shattuck said. “Except my machine isn’t a treadle machine and you don’t heat the iron with coal. But, other than that, I do exactly what they do, hopefully close to as good.”
Mr. Shattuck’s jackets cost several thousand dollars and his customers come from all over the world.
He uses Skype to help customers take their measurements and to later try on muslin mock ups and then the full jacket before final alterations.
“And they do it instead of having them made in their own country because they’re people that have researched it and they know the real, authentic work,” Mr. Shattuck said. “They don’t care about anything flashy and they don’t care about walking into a big establishment and being treated like gold. They just want the pure, authentic coat and the know the difference. So, that’s who my customers are.”
Mr. Shattuck’s workshop is far from flashy. One corner is occupied by a cutting table, his ancient sewing machine and a tailor’s dummy. The other corner houses the free weights he uses for workouts and the walls are covered with coat patterns. Nearly every flat surface is littered with bird carvings — Mr. Shattucks, artistic release when he is not sewing. Mr. Shattuck is also an actor having appeared in several movies, an episode of Law and Order and two episodes of Boardwalk Empire in the role of Charlie Sheridan.
After 35 years in tailor shops he can’t imagine doing anything else and he does not know where the next tailors are coming from.
“Those men are all gone. You can’t learn. People come to me and say, ‘I want to learn this,’” he said. “You have to steep yourself in tailor shops, in the craft. You have to be in the shop, sweeping the floors and having lunch with the tailors and you have to marinate in it for years to learn. You can’t learn one and one is two. I say you don’t learn tailoring. You absorb it. From the craft itself, your absorb the craft. You don’t learn it with your head. You learn it with your hands.”
Mr. Scholes was given an old clock as a gift while working a construction job. He had spent his entire life running a construction company working on big contracts across New York State. Certainly he could get an old clock running again.
It wasn’t long before his tinkering destroyed the clock, Mr. Scholes said. That attempt, however, lit a spark in him to try again.
Soon he was buying old clocks on eBay and meticulously taking them apart and putting them back together. He bought books and practiced for about a year before he was confident enough to fix someone else’s clock.
Dirt and age are common problems but each repair starts the same.
“First thing I do is take it apart and clean all the parts,” Mr. Scholes said. “Then loosely assemble it and check the gears, Make sure they’re not too loose and if they are, we put new bushings in and if it’s OK we just put it back together and oil it and it should be good for another 10 years.”
The door to Mr. Scholes shop is under a large clock down a small flight of stairs in the basement of 45 Church St. Clock works that have been repaired are hung outside their cases, pendulums swinging, while Mr. Scholes makes sure they will continue to run. There are grandfather clocks, mantle clocks, cuckoo clocks and pocket watches on shelves around the store.
Mr. Scholes has been busy since the day he opened the door and started advertising 18 months ago.
“This is a tourist town, so a lot of them come from the islands,” he said. “They have their homesteads around here for generations and they bring their stuff in to be repaired because nobody’s been around to do it for years.”
While many of the clocks he works on are quite old, they don’t hold a lot of value.
“The old mantle clocks are mostly just sentimental,” he said. “There is not a lot of value – $40, $40, $150. They made millions of them.”
Clocks, he explained, have really only been important since the 1840s and ‘50s.
“Before that, the morning stage came in the morning. That’s all they knew,” he said.
Modern technology helps Mr. Scholes deal with the incredible number of tiny parts he needs to keep track of. As he disassembles and reassembles each clock, he uses a computer tablet to take pictures of each step of the process ensuring that they go back together correctly.
It is not inevitable that an old clock will stop running, but people can make the situation worse by trying to fix a stopped clock themselves.
Mr. Scholes’ advice?
“Bring them here.”