Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Something BIG Was Once Afoot in the Adirondacks

This appears to be the easiest North Country riddle ever, but humor me and give it a try anyway. What is very tall, very hairy, probably didn’t smell very good, and set tongues wagging when it was seen in the northern Adirondacks several times in early 1933? Just to be safe, take a moment and think about it. Hey, you never know — it could be a trick question. But if you’re still stumped or not certain of your answer, here’s another clue that might prove the clincher: it was known for having very large (OK … BIG) feet.

If you answered anything other than Gil Reichert, you’ve been successfully misled. No apologies here, though, for the description above fits both Reichert and your likely choice (Bigfoot) to a T.

For several decades in the 1900s, barnstorming sports teams proliferated in the United States, visiting hundreds of towns, sometimes more than one a day, usually to compete with local teams. Among the most frequent summer visitors to the Adirondack region was the House of David baseball team, sponsored by a religious sect based in Michigan. In 1933, the organization’s basketball team made a wintertime tour of the North Country, playing at sites that included Gloversville, Saranac Lake, Plattsburgh, Malone, Massena, Potsdam, and Ogdensburg.

No matter what the sport was, House of David had certain goals in mind: to field extremely talented teams that won most of the time; to develop unusual, high-level tricks and skills that could be readily employed at any time, but especially when they had a comfortable lead; to put on a great show for attendees; and to earn money at the box office. They were pretty good at all of it.

In the sporting world, House of David teams are known for one unusual physical feature: each player usually sported a beard. Those who didn’t have a beard or couldn’t grow one sometimes opted to wear fake whiskers, but the great majority of them grew beards. This helps account for the fact that I referred to our subject as hairy: bearded people are at least a bit hairier than your average human. That he probably didn’t smell good is a safe assumption about basketball players who worked up a sweat in the good ol’ days when showers weren’t readily available and deodorants weren’t the equal of modern concoctions.

That he was tall is not a given just because he was on a basketball team. But Reichert played center, which is where the tallest players typically are stationed, so he was among the tallest men on the team at a time when basketball players were not at all tall by today’s standards. (In 1947, when the NBA was founded, the average height was 6 feet 2, which means many, many players were below six feet tall.)

And here’s where our subject stands out from the crowd in a big way. In 1933, more than a decade before the NBA was formed, Gilbert Reichert was taller than your average player, your average basketball center, and … well, let’s just forget about average. The lowest number given for his height was 7 feet 5 inches. A few years later, it was often given as upwards of eight feet (a bit more on that later).

So as far as the riddle goes, we’ve justified hairy, bad-smelling (after a game), tall, and was seen up north in 1933. But did he really have big feet? Boy, did he ever!

Shoe size is one of those things that fascinates us about unusually tall people, and in Reichert’s case, it was frequently mentioned in promotional articles touting upcoming games. Aside from his great height, wrote the Plattsburgh Daily Republican, “He is also distinguished as being the possessor of the bulkiest pair of ‘dogs’ in captivity.” Absolutely true … and no, he wasn’t traveling with comfort pups.

For one very surprised Adirondack craftsman, Reichert’s gargantuan grape-stompers presented a rare opportunity to toe the mark on behalf of cobblers everywhere. During a House of David stop in Tupper Lake, the team’s famous center visited the shop of Phil Delaire, who accepted the herculean task (by shoemaker standards) of creating a new set of heels and soles for Reichert’s size 20 shoes. Delaire was up to the task, successfully retreading a pair of clodhoppers said to have each measured about 17 inches long by 7 inches wide.

Among the pieces of memorabilia that still exist from Gil’s life is a brief note he wrote just three years later, suggesting that he was still growing. Here’s a snippet: “Dear Sir: Surprised to receive your letter. However here is your picture. I am 8’1” in height 24 years old weigh 260 lbs. Size 22 shoe.”

To learn a bit more about Gil and view some very interesting photos, visit The Tallest Man website.

We do know that in February 1933, with customarily long, gangly strides, Gilbert Reichert walked away from Phil Delaire’s Tupper Lake cobbler shop a happy and satisfied customer.

Granted, it was perhaps not a great moment in Adirondack history, but dollars to donuts it was the greatest footnote in Adirondack history.

Photos: Bigfoot Statue by Alexander Migl, 2018 (Wiki Commons); Gilbert Reichert in the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, 1949; Gil and his wife, Irene (5 feet 2 inches tall), doing the dishes (The Tallest Man website)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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