Hillmer’s Leather

My first real job was working in Hillmer’s Leather.  Walt Kalthoff put me to work in what was his leather and luggage repair shop in the back of Hillmer’s.  I worked the summer between my junior and senior years of high school and truly loved the experience.  Walt Hillmer, Sr. owned the store in front.  The traffic that flowed in and out of the store in that summer of 1968 now seems amazing.   If you wanted to travel, a stop in Hillmer’s was required.  Eventually, even the Kansas City Royals bought their team travel bags at Hillmer’s.

What I will always remember on that first day of work was the intoxicating aroma of leather hides that were kept in the back.  These weren’t little scraps of leather, though every ounce was saved for some small use.  These were massive hides with all sorts of rich texture and feel.  On many the scars from scraping against barbed wire were still visible.  Back then the repair shop did just about anything.

In the three months I worked there, I had the opportunity to work on saddles, leather suitcases, leather coats and made a good share of leather bracelets and watch bands for the hippies that would mingle with the cowboys, farmers and businessmen that found their way to the back of Hillmer’s.  They’d stand in the midst of what seemed like total chaos as a portion of a hide was matched to the damaged goods or selected for a headband by some peace-loving Topekan.

Early on, I mainly repaired broken suitcase clasps or hinges.  In old cigar boxes and bins, various hardware was casually stored for the travel bags of the day.  Finding the right one always seemed impossible, but Walt or his other full-time worker knew exactly where to look, as did I over time.  I had my own workbench and tools.  The broken part would be removed and the new hinge or clasp would be carefully secured.  As messy as the shop might have seemed, I learned a lot about attention to detail working there.

One area that especially needed close attention was when I was called upon to sew pieces of leather together.  For this I learned to create my own thread out of horsetail hair.  I never tired of doing this.  The process truly amazed me.  Long hair strands would be secured in a clamp.  Using a screwdriver the threads would be twisted over and over again until they were wound tight.  Then using a block of bee’s wax, the wound threads would be waxed to perfection.  Depending on the need, the thread could be delicately thin or thick and stout.  A diamond-shaped awl was used to punch a needle hole in the sturdy leather.  Here is where the attention to detail came in.  The shape that diamond-shaped awl made had to match throughout the work.  I wasn’t just punching a hole.  I was making an intricate pattern of real beauty through which the thread ran in a double-back pattern for extra strength.

There is one other thing I will never forget from my time in the back of Hillmer’s, the smell of horse glue.  That was absolutely awful.  I never got used to the smell, and I had to use the glue often.  I needed it to glue repaired or new linings in suitcases.  Once the glue cooled and dried, the smell would disappear.  Until then, oh, how I hated to have to turn up the heat on the glue-pot.  As long as I live, I will never forget what essentially was the smell of dead horse.

Turns were taken for eating our lunch.  We’d sit in the far back in a big old leather easy chair with our lunch boxes and take our half hour.  The sun streaked through the large back windows warming the skin as the smell and feel of the rich leather chair soothed the soul.  Working with these men was an honor.  They were true craftsmen, and I am proud to have been given the chance to work with my hands in such a fascinating way.  At the end of the summer, I was asked to stay.  There was even talk about offering me a full-time job after high school.  My mind was set on my journalism track though, and I respectfully and somewhat sadly had to say no.

Hearing of the store’s imminent closing, I stopped in Wednesday to buy one final wallet as I have ever since I worked there. I ventured into the back for a final look.  While there is still a small repair area, the size and scope of work has dramatically changed and diminished over the many years since I said my goodbyes.  The men I knew are gone now, but quality and variety in goods was still remarkable.  I found a wallet at a greatly reduced price and stood in one of the long check out lines that streamed in two directions over the full length of the store.  Standing there it seemed as though a horde of locust descended on the place grabbing for every leather jacket, suitcase, belt or purse.  In the time it took me to pay for my last Hillmer’s wallet the store seemed to be wiped nearly clean.

Snapping a quick phone photo for this remembrance, I walked back to my car through the store’s back door that I entered many years ago as a 17-year-old.  I had stood in line so long, a parking ticket rested on my car window.  It was worth it though to step back in time and cherish my memories of the fine people and the wonderful experiences at Hillmer’s Leather.


About jeffjacobsen

Thank you for reading my blog, Here I Stand. You can read all about me, my wife and my family on the Family page. God bless and keep you.
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