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The History of Leatherstocking Club

As told by Ralph F. Theurer (~1960)

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It all began in Leng's Hotel a hundred years ago. There in the village of Oswego, on a March night in 1860, a group of men gathered in lamp and fire-lit tavern room to talk of what could be done to curb th lawless shooting of game and preserve the dwindling wildlife. There was general agreement that it was getting pretty hard to take a deer when one was needed; you couldn't shoot one from your front yard any more. And wil turkeys were harder to come by, too. Even the salmon, upon which most families depended, smoked for a winter staple, were harder to net or spear in quantities from the river. Meanwhile, there was a thriving business in pot hunting for the lumber camps and this didn't sit too well with the local sportsmen.

So this was an indignation meeting of a sort, where sportsmen could look back upon the "good old days," quaff a cider and rum concoction (called a stonewall) from flip-top mugs and figure what could be done. What could be done, they decided, was to band together in what they termed a "Vigilance Committee to detect and expose the violations of the game laws and to enforce the objects of the association with vigor and efficiency." Enforcement of the game laws in 1860 didn't put much of a strain on the membership of the new club - there weren't many to enforce. There was one act on the books, passed in 1705, which prohibited the killing of a deer except during the period from August 1 to January 1, and provided for a fine of 20 shillings (or 20 days in Jail) if caught so doing. But not until 1896 were there any State game laws promulgated by the legislature. Before that, individual counties were on their own to set up what few restrictions were in effect.

It is not recorded how many poachers were brought to justice by the Leatherstocking's "Vigilance Committee," but it appears that they either exercised their vigilance judiciously or the Leatherstockings were a remarkably upright and virtuous group, for the club records do not disclose one instance of a member ever running afoul of the law or of being rebuked for a minor infraction. Returning to the business at hand on that memorable March night, we find that six articles of incorporation were adopted and signed by the 20 charter members. These were later recorded with the Secretary of State:

  • "Article 1. A fee of $1.00 paid annually to the treasure, shall entitle any citizen to membership." (Interesting fact: $1.00 in 1860, is equal to roughly $29.00 today!)
  • "Article 2. The funds of the association may be used upon requisition of the president, recording secretary and any member of the executive committee to defray expenses of enforcing the law."
  • "Article 3. the duty of each of the executive committee shall be to report violations of the laws, with view of enforcement of the same."
  • "Article 4. the year shall expire on the 31st day of December, and should there be at that time sufficient funds of the association for that purpose, the officials of the association may expend same for a game supper for the members."
  • "Article 5. There shall be an annual meeting of the members of the association on the first Monday of January of each year, to be publicly notified by the secretary."
  • "Article 6. The president, or in his absence, either of the vice presidents, are authorized to call a special meeting."
  • "The original minutes of this first meeting are now a part of the exhibits of the Oswego County Historical Society."

After a lapse of ten days, undoubtedly to allow the members time to recover from the first meeting, the first regular meeting of The Leatherstocking Club was held at the old rendezvous, Leng's Hotel. Here, at this time, additional members were admitted until it included well known politicians and businessmen of the vicinity. F. T. Carrington, first temporary chairman, and John Stevenson, an English sportsman, were chosen as vice-presidents. dudley Farrington, an editor, was corresponding secretary; Samuel Beardsley, miller and fleet owner, was recording secretary, and S. R. Taylor, hunter, was treasurer.

The name of the club was undoubtedly inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper, some of whose "Leatherstocking Tales" were written in Oswego. The house in which they were written still stands, suitably inscribed with a plaque.

As early as 1876, prominent club members including Judge David R. Brewster; Dewitt C. Littlejohn, one of the first speakers in the State Assembly and owner of vast estates, part of which are now know as the "Littlejohn Tract;" J.D. Hammond, state Senator; A.C. Matoon, Assemblyman; Judge Wright and Max B. Richardson - to list only a few - were active in promoting legislation for the conservation of our natural resources and wildlife. They Represented the organization at state conventions where such laws and practices were formulated. And today, still, as in the past, The Leatherstocking Club sends a delegate to this same type of convention, that of the New York State Conservation Council, where its voice is heard in matters pertaining to the same ideals that were fought for so vigorously by the old timers of long ago. But not all the time in those early days was devoted to enforcement of the law and representing the best interests of conservation before the Legislature. Members took a little time off for trap shooting (live pigeons then) and, as mentioned earlier, sampling such beverages as the stonewall and another concoction dubbed the Colonial flip - an equally sturdy beverage of rum, beer, sugar and molasses, singed with a red hot poker. We will assume, there being no notes in the record to the contrary, that the Leatherstockings undertook the trap shooting and tippling activities separately. And then there were contests and competitions. The willingness of the sportsmen to pit their skill against another group is shown in a letter written the the latter part of the last century by the secretary of The Salmon River Club. This conveyed a challenge to match skills in a live pigeon shoot; the loser - you guessed it - to put on a game dinner for the winner.

Once, back in the early days, this famous old club nearly met its Waterloo, as a legal action, for some reason now obscure, completely exhausted the club treasury. The club, after paying some $600 and losing all its equipment of tents and traps, emerged from this affair with only its name and record book in tact. It has had lean years since, too, but always there have been a few to carry its name through and make sure that at least one meeting a year was held and officers elected to keep it alive.

The Leatherstocking Club now has its skeet and trap field, sponsors annual field trials, helps to liberate fish and game and is active in the formation of laws relative to conservation practices. The voice of its representative is heard a public hearing in Albany and at the annual meetings of the Conservation Council. Once a year it carries out the old tradition of the annual dinner and while the piece de resistance may not be game, the other accoutrements seem to quite akin to earlier dinners.

Yes, the Leatherstockings are keeping abreast of the time. Some four years ago the club purchased 300 acres of farm land a short distance east of the City of Oswego to develop as a land rehabilitation project for wildlife. At the present writing, 40,000 coniferous trees of various species have been planted, including clump plantings of white cedar for deer browse and protection against the elements. Strip plantings of clover, corn, buckwheat and other food-bearing plants and shrubs have been made. Escape lanes of multiflora rose, hazelnut and nannyberry have been planted. Three small marshes for migratory waterfowl and fur-bearers have been bulldozed and a farm pond of about an acre surface has been completed, which, after the sealing process is complete will be stocked with suitable fish and opened to the public for fishing.

It is a proud honor indeed for us all that the sportsmen's club to first become conscious of the need to "take a little and leave a little for seed," was born on March 17, 1860 in Leng's Hotel - The Leatherstocking Club of Oswego.

This article was taken from The Conservationist Magazine, December-January, 1960-61.