Film bares Peabody's "Leather Soul"


 By Anne Driscoll
 (excerpted from the original article)

In many ways, Joe Cultrera and Bob Quinn have led parallel lives: each grew up in tight working-class neighborhoods in the '60's, each worked for a time in the smelly, gritty leather industry, and each went on to film school in New York City       

But despite the fact that the two grew up a mere 3 miles apart -- Cultrera in Salem and Quinn in Peabody -- they didn't meet each other until they attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and became roommates.  At that point their lives and work intersected, and have overlapped ever since.

The most compelling and recent evidence of their shared experience and vision is in the documentary "Leather Soul: Working for a Life in a Factory Town," an intimate, and even romantic portrait of an industry, which was both loved and loathed, and the people who both thrived and were hurt by it. Narrated by Studs Terkel and written by Peabody native son John Stanton this chronicle of Peabody aired on more than 30 PBS stations across the country as part of the PBS series, "We Do The Work."

Cultrera, who directed Leather Soul, and Quinn, who produced it, say they felt driven to record the stories of the men and women who labored in the leather industry before it was too late, especially since it was a story they knew firsthand. They saw in the saga of the leather industry a mirror of the industrial revolution that boosted and then busted so many communities in New England and across the country.  

In 1916, when Peabody incorporated under its present charter, it was the Leather Capital of the World, the largest producer of leather products on the globe. About 100 leather factories employed 8,000 men then in a city that claimed 16,000 residents.  Many of the workers were immigrants from Armenia, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Poland and Italy who were at least assured of a job, and frequently a decent salary, as well.  Now, not a single tannery exists in Peabody that fully processes the leather.

The smell of hides doused in chrome, the heat of the ovens that baked animal skins, the rhythmic banging of the staking machine that pulled the skins along a belt are the visceral images of a tanning industry that is nearly gone from the home where it reigned for a century and they are also the sounds and sights captured in Leather Soul.  Rather than the observations of academics or historians, Leather Soul relies on oral histories and features the stories of those who knew the work best -- the shop foremen, the owners, the union leaders, as well as the many workers whose hands trimmed, shaved, dyed and dried the leather. The fathers of Cultrera and Quinn, and several relatives of Stanton are among those interviewed in the film.

Cultrera tried his hand in a leather shop himself after he graduated from Bishop Fenwick in 1976.  He didn't want to go to college, so his father, Paul, decided to get him a job as a lumper or gofer.  But it took only a year of toiling in the factories before Cultrera changed his mind.  "The factories gave me a college ambition," said Cultrera.

"My dad worked in the industry for 50 years.  The last one at Hawthorne Tanning, that's where I worked with him.  It's funny to end up doing this piece -- the work that got me to leave also got me to come back and spend five years chronicling it.  Doing the film completed a weird cycle."

Paul Cultrera worked in several different shops between the time he was 16 and 65.  He doesn't regret that his son chose a film career over the factories. "I think the best thing I did was to make him work there for a summer, it made him realize a few things."

  Paul Cultrera                                                                              Robert Quinn Sr.

Quinn also worked in the leather industry at Strauss Leather, a Civil War-era building that had been the oldest leather shop in Peabody until it closed down in 1984.  Back as a teen-ager, he used to place hides on a belt as part of the patent leather process before stacking the hides 20 or 30 skins high to bake in the ovens. 

Of his son's film, the elder Robert Quinn said, "I was favorably impressed, I worked in a leather shop myself and could relate to most of it.  Once you got past the dust and the smell -- which took about a week, you never noticed those things after that.  If everybody was doing the same dirty, hard job and they weren't complaining, why would you?"

Stanton said doing Leather Soul helped him view Peabody in a different perspective.  "It was interesting going back, taking a whole different look at Peabody, going back as a reporter. Some things I already knew from my grandfather who worked in the leather factories, but other things were new."



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