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Living like it’s 1770

Small feet led New Ulm woman to leather crafting

By Carlienne A. Frisch

Women who enjoy historical re-enacting often portray “saloon ladies,” suffragettes, or traditional housewives. One notable exception is Pegeen Rozeske of New Ulm. Standing at 5’1” and weighing about 100 pounds, Rozeske has taken on a different role -- leather crafting. She brings along equipment that includes a replica of a 1770’s journeyman shoemaker’s traveling tool box, with a fold-out bench. Rozeske enjoys sharing her knowledge of leather crafts with people of all ages.

Pegeen Rozeske working on her on a leather item, with a box of her trusty tools by her side. Photo by Michael Huerkamp Photography.

“I’m a historical re-enactor, a lover and rider of horses, and a leather crafter,” she said.

Rozeske credits having exceptionally small feet with the direction her life has taken. Although many women might appreciate having smaller feet, for Rozeske it posed a problem that led to her learning to make her own footwear. Note: As an adult, she still wears a boys size four shoe.

While growing up on a Bernadotte Township farm near New Ulm, Rozeske began to ride horses at about 18 months, with older cousins holding her on the horse. She got her first horse at age nine, a Shetland pony named “Girl,” and learned to ride alone. The horse was named after her father said, “Come on, girl,” when he brought her and was unloading her from the truck, Rozeske explained.

Then came “Beauty,” which Rozeske rode in 4-H shows. With the horses came responsibilities—grooming them, hauling water, baling hay, cleaning the stall. At age 12, she learned how to inoculate the horses, which led to her vaccinating pigs in the family’s farrow-to-finish operation.

“I had an interesting childhood,” Rozeske said, which led to an interesting adult life. “As an adult, I’ve had as many as seven horses, 30 cats, and two dogs—and I took care of the good portion of their medical care myself.”

Pegeen passes around a handcrafted shoe during one of her leather crafting demonstrations. Michael Huerkamp Photography.

From the time she was a youngster, Rozeske has always had horses. Now that she lives in town, she visits and rides her horse often. Her husband, Mike Huerkamp, enjoys photographing the horses and feeding them treats, but does not ride.

“I love horses. I loved my cowboy boots, a little boys size 4E, a size I still wear. You used to be able to get them at tack shops, but not anymore.”

This problem led to Rozeske eventually learning a new skill--bootmaking. The opportunity came along in 2002, when Rozeske was laid off from a job at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. She used the severance package that she received to embark on a learning experience she had been considering, but had not had time to fit into a work schedule. In 2003, she spent a month in Redmond, Oregon, enrolled in a boot making course of study with D.W. Frommer II, learning to make boots with machinery.

When Rozeske returned to Minnesota as a certified boot maker, she learned that the machinery she wanted to buy was expensive, costing “about the same as machinery in an auto body shop,” she said.

“The equipment was made in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and is still in use today, and still costs thousands of dollars. I scrimped and saved, I salvaged equipment that was on its way to a scrap pile, and I received grant funding from Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council.”

Pegeen working with the leather. Michael Kuerkamp Photography.

One machine weighs 800 pounds, and another over 650 pounds.

“One is a Blake stitcher, named after its inventor, who was an employee of Singer. Mr. Blake was not good at marketing, so he sold the rights to a Mr. McKay, who marketed the machine. It’s called either a Blake or a McKay Stitcher, and it creates stitches that are used for attaching the upper part of the shoe to the insole or midsole. It goes through thick leather.

“Mr. Frommer taught me to make the boot that would fit around my fat, little foot,” Rozeske said. From personal experience, she rarely accepts it when people tell her they wear a certain size.

“I always measure, using a dress-maker’s tape measure. I also take the tracing of the foot with specific measurements of certain areas,” she said.

Further research led to Rozeske learning to make boots using only hand tools, which is the skill she demonstrates at historical events. She also uses a vintage treadle machine to sew fancy designs on the leather.

“You can sew almost anything with that machine, even fancy designs.” She credits use of the machine for her “learning to become a decent seamstress.”

Showing the work

Rozeske enjoys offering demonstrations of boot making at historical re-enactments and rendezvous, taking part in about 30 shows a year before COVID affected activities over the past couple of years. Now, with her calendar again filling, Rozeske has seen about 6,000 school children this year, averaging about 1,000 children per show.

Pegeen gives a demonstration to families on her leather crafting. Michael Kuerkamp Photography.

“This year, there were about 1,000 children at History Fest on McGowan’s Farm (near Mankato) each day,” she said. “And when the school buses leave, the silence is deafening.”

As for the children, they leave with knowledge and a better understanding of history and leather crafts.

“When I portray a 1770s shoemaker, I tell the people, especially children, what it was like to live and work in 1770,” Rozeske said. “My work requires strength—biceps, triceps, shoulder muscles, and back muscles.”

Rozeske makes the shoes right in front of the people, and let’s them handle the equipment that isn’t sharp. Kids usually listen to her warnings.

“Adults are worse—they put their hand on the equipment to see how sharp it is. Children believe you when you tell them it’s sharp. It’s mostly men who say ‘I’m used to handling sharp knives.’” she sighed. “I hate cleaning up blood.”

A permanent exhibit

Rozeske has found a home for some of her work at the non-profit Mankato Makerspace, where she has a permanent exhibit in the textiles room. She also shares her skills in classes with students who bring an idea or a project to the Makerspace, where a leather projects club has been formed.

A close up of Pegeen. Michael Huerkamp Photography.

“Some ladies love doing handbags, and one man makes carry bags for his motorcycle and bicycle,” she said.

Having small feet has led to Rozeske having an unusual, multi-faceted life. She enjoys sharing it with interested people in a variety of ways.

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