Jack Leadley Sr. follows a trail blazed by Adirondack woodsmen of long ago, who were known for their skills, their self-reliance and their magnetic way with people.
Fiercely loyal to the traditions of the mountains that have been a part of his life since he was a child, Leadley is known far and wide as an artist, writer and woodsman who makes Adirondack pack baskets, rustic furnishings and watercolor paintings of the places he loves.
“Jack is absolutely, positively one of the great folk artists of the Adirondacks. He does everything by hand. He’s amazing, a living legend,” said Ralph Kylloe, an author and expert on Adirondack rustic furnishings.
Saying Leadley does everything by hand is true, but understated. He proceeds with a project the way guides of the 1800s did. No shortcuts. For his pack baskets, for instance, he begins with the harvesting of a black ash tree, soaking it in a pond for a full year, pulling it out and pounding every inch of the log with a mallet to loosen the inner bark and then pulling off long straight strips.
A single tree — “if it’s a good log” — will yield enough splints for 10 to 20 baskets. The work is slow and suits Leadley, who is still, at 81, athletic and accustomed to working hard.
“I am so contented back here. If there’s something better, I don’t know about it,” he said crossing his arms.
“Back here” refers to a few rustic buildings located about a half mile or less into the woods from Leadley’s conventional home on Route 30 in Speculator.
There’s a workshop, converted from an old sugar house, a deteriorating bark shanty that the Adirondack guides of old would recognize, and a cozy log cabin where he sleeps seven months of the year. He’s in his workshop every day he can, he said.
“Every day I try to do something productive,” he added. Though these days, he confessed, a productive morning is often followed by a mid-day nap.
Leadley’s little log cabin sits a stone’s throw from the pond where several black ash trees soak in a log boon until such time when they will be processed, peeled and used to construct baskets, the splines of snowshoes and caning for rustic rockers.
The material is “very tough and light” and a well-made pack basket can carry 100 pounds, though Leadley is quick to point out that no one would want to carry that much weight for very long. Forty to 50 pounds was more typical. He believes the shape of the pack baskets has endured the test of time because of its utility and design.
Leadley said guides once carried venison, bear, fish and camping equipment in these baskets. He has used his pack baskets to carry all manner of things, from firewood to his toddler son years ago when the family went hiking. “When you put weight in the pack, the heaviest part is near the hips. This makes carrying a heavy load easier,” Leadley noted.
Leadley’s workshop is just up hill from the pond. Climbing onto the porch, he points to two sorry looking pack baskets. These are the first pack baskets he made in 1955. “I got into making pack baskets because I needed one,” he said.
The first Adirondack pack basket “has struggle written all over it. It’s lumpy. I thought it was going out too much so I tightened it.” Leadley stops talking about the poorly woven basket. He just looks at it and shakes his head. “I had no training. No book. No one to ask. I didn’t give up: I kept making them, and each one got a little better than the last,” he said.
It is characteristic of him to forge ahead in this way. He did the same thing when he needed a fishing creel and when an old pair of snowshoes needed new decking.
Talkative by nature, Leadley explained that years ago he trapped coyotes, beaver and otter and traveled “thousands of miles into and out of the woods on snowshoes.” This is how he first came to redo the decking of old snowshoes. “I needed them, so I made them,” he said.
There’s a charismatic spark that shines from behind his keen blue eyes and a sharpness too. He notices everything, even the smallest details, such as tiny flecks of red paint on an old frame. “See this paint? It was known as Johnsburg paint and was made from a mixture of iron, aluminum and red clay,” he said.
The workshop is a step back in time. It smells of bark, leather and wood. There’s no electricity and no running water. Leadley works an iron pump handle vigorously up and down until water splashed into the trough. It is here that ash splints are soaked 20 minutes or longer to make them pliable enough to use.
The only nod to technology is a light that works off a car battery charged by a solar panel that was installed by one of his clients. “I got everything I want,” he said. There’s no computer and no phone. “I wouldn’t want one,” Leadley said.
Here all things are rustic. Near the wood stove, there’s a chair made by the Adirondack craftsman Lee Fountain sometime before the 1940s. Above it hang a wolf and coyote pelt, and on the walls and rafters hang snowshoes, basket handles and huge bundles of ash splints.
In stark contrast, a finely woven pack basket with an even spiral pattern sits on a stool near the work table. It is almost finished and stands out for its finespun beauty in these rough surrounds. The weaving is fastidious. The shape is perfectly symmetric. It is the work of a master craftsman.
Leadley’s love of the Adirondack Mountains’ cragged woodlands came early in life. At age 6, his family would drive from Staten Island to spend summers in Speculator. His father, an automobile salesman, suffered from asthma and the mountain air made him feel better. He was also a “big boxing fan,” and this is where heavyweight boxers Max Schmeling, Gene Tunney and Max Baer all trained during the 1920s and 1930s. “Dad liked to watch them,” Leadley said.
After World War II, when he was discharged, Leadley headed to Speculator, fell in love and married the former Joan Weaver. “I was fishing by the bridge. She came down and caught me. It was love at first sight,” he said. They celebrated their 59th anniversary on Dec. 3. The couple have three grown children.
The Leadleys live on 115 acres that Joan’s ancestors also called home. Her roots can be traced back to 1794, when the Courtney family owned 500 acres on Lake Pleasant.
Leadley’s craftsmanship has earned him a reputation beyond the Adirondack Mountains. His pack baskets and rustic furniture have been purchased by people in all walks of life, from hikers to celebrities, including internationally recognized wildlife artist the late Bob Kuhn, who Leadley called a friend.
Leadley is an artist himself and often embellishes his rustic furnishings with watercolors of woodland scenes.
To the left of his driveway, there’s a little cabin used as a gallery and full of his work. “I’m happy with that,” he said of one painting showing a calm lake with evergreen covered shoreline and hills. “I never had training. I figured either I’d get better or find something better to do,” he said.