"He had a red nose and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly." While originally applied to one S. Claus, these lines also serve well to describe another revered wintertime wizard, one P. Limmer of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts--Peter Limmer, Meister Schumacher.
Limmer ski boots, approaching in their field the status of Louisville Sluggers in baseball, have brought respect and renown to Peter and his boot-making family. The Limmer boots are definitely a family affair; his wife and two sons work along with him in the production of these eagerly-sought downhill delights. Working as a team, Peter, his wife, and his sons, Peter Jr. and Francis, yearly turn over 100 pairs of handmade ski boots, spending the rest of their working time on his equally famous one-piece walking shoes and climbing boots.
More Than a Bootmaker
But more than just a bootmaker, Peter Limmer is a skiing institution, and his shop a hangout for the optimistic amateurs who look for snow in October, and the inscrutable professionals, who may do so but don't show it.
Shoe and bootmaking is a Limmer family tradition. Both Peter's and his wife's fathers were shoemakers, and the present family boasts innumerable shoemaking uncles. He was one of twelve brothers and two unfortunate sisters. Unfortunate, because they cost the family 200 marks and considerable fame.
"In Bavaria," says Peter, "the king used to give 100 marks to a family that had seven boys born in a row. Also, the king would be godfather of the seventh boy. My mother had six sons, and when the seventh was coming, they thought it would be a boy, but it turned out to be a girl. So papa said, 'Well mama, I guess we have to try again.'" Unfortunately, the second try resulted in a similar buildup, and a similar let down.
His training in Fachenburg, Bavaria, started at the age of nine, when after school chores in his father's shop were in order. These chores were good experience in more than shoemaking. Rushing the growler for his father, Peter found it expeditions to slip off a hit of the beer that might otherwise have spilled in transit. "In a family of fourteen, anyhow, there never was enough milk for everybody."
"A Little in the Woods"
Peter's apprenticeship was interrupted by his induction into the German Army in the first World War. Sent to the Eastern front, he was captured by the Russians and spent three years in various prison camps. At one time, he was in a road gang building a railroad in the Caucasus. "It was very hard work," Peter reminisces, "and I wondered why I should work there if I could never ride on that train. I noticed the guard wasn't looking, so I just moved a little in the woods. Then a little more. It took them three months to fine me again."
After a war Peter's lift was a mixture of shoe and boot making and visits to nearby Roseheim where he courted his wife, alias Mama, alias The Boss. (She denies the last titles). In 1921 Peter was awarded his Meisterbrief and became one of the youngest master shoemakers in Bavaria. But bringing up two children in inflation-ridden Germany was too much of a job on shoemaker's money, so Peter decided, in 1924, to emigrate to the United States where one of his sisters lived.
He worked for a short while in a Boston shoe factory. But then "we saw this empty store," Mama explains, "and a German we met said we should start for ourselves because we had no money and couldn't lose any. So we borrowed $43 to pay the rent on the house and the store and started repairing shoes."
Early financial problems were great, according to both Peter and Mama. "When I got to America, I had $5.50," recalls Peter, "and when I paid the express for my trunk I didn't have anything." Peter, who spoke no English them, went on in the shoe repair business, and gradually turned his trade to bigger and better things. To the shoe repair business was soon added that of shoemaking. The Limmers showed a sample pair of ski boots around, but in 1924 there weren't many skiers in America.
Jump on the Toes
But in 1929 "a fellow named Wolf, and one named Livermore, and one named Wheelright came around and saw the ski boots. These follows saw the box toe and jumped on it to see if it would bend in. But you could run a truck over those toes and they wouldn't cave in, so they bought the boots." At the point the Limmer ski boot business started.
Along with the ski boots, the Limmers make mountain climbing boots and walking shoes. One pair of the climbing boots was worn by Arthur Emmons on the 1936 accent of Nanda-Devi which not a world climbing record.
During the war, with the boys in the service the Limmers went back to shoe repairing. When the boys returned, the family again abandoned that mundane occupation for producing their own. "The people around here didn't like that," says Mama, "they said the Limmers were getting too independent."
Three A Day
The Limmer establishment works very much on the old world system, with the two sons, both unmarried, living at home and working with Papa and Mama in the shop. Peter Jr. estimates it would take one of them alone two full days to make a pair of boots. The shoes are easier and the Limmers can make about three pairs a day.
The boots, according to Peter, are better than the ones they made in the old country, but along the same general lines. "We believe," explains Peter Jr., "that if the boot is carefully fitted and comfortable, yet tough and waterproof, it's right. All the extra lacings and straps you can put on only get in your way and hurt your feet."
The actual process of making a pair of boots in a painstaking and tedious one. The pilgrim who travels to 135 Boylston St. gets his foot measured by Papa who insists that the lucky skier wear a properly ftting sock for the occasion. Having got a measurement of the customer's foot, Peter, or one of the boys, selects a "last" (the "last" looks like a solid wooden shoe tree with no hands) nearest the size of the measured foot. This "last" is carefully sanded down or built up with pieces of leather so that it emerges a working model of the foot.
From here the "last" and the measurements are consulted in making a pattern for cutting out the leather uppers. The trigonometry involved would do credit to a Math 1 student. At this point, Mama's work begins; she cuts and sews the uppers to the required size. The selection and cutting of the upper is a difficult process, since all leather will stretch in one direction. The problem is to select a piece of leather with the minimum of stretch, and then cut it so that the stretching will be in the least detrimental direction.
When the uppers have been cut and sewn, they go, with the "last" and the original pattern, back upstairs. Here Peter, or one of the boys, performs the strategic steps in boot production. The inner sole is tacked to the bottom of the "last" and then trimmed to fit it perfectly. Next, the upper is fitted to the "last" with repeated stretching and tacking. From there, the steel sole shank and outer soles are applied and the heel is built up. Finally a corrugated rubber outer sole is applied and the finishing touches of grooving the heels and waterproofing all exposed stitching take place. The finished product is a perfectly fitted, ox-blood colored boot, resplendent with brass lacing hooks.
Peter guarantees the fit of his boots, and has on occasion refunded money to customers who were not satisfied, despite his assurance of a perfect fit.
Occasionally the boots fit too well. The problem arises when the boot is too tightly fitted to the "last." When normal tugging fails to get the waxed "last" out of the finished boot, the hardwood form must painstakingly be chiseled out of the boot.
The intricacies of the trade tempt Peter to make extravagant offers. On occasion he'll promise a pair of boots, free, to the visitor who can successfully pare a long bootlace from a patch of leather, or drive ten wooden pages into a boot sale without a miss. The latter offer was taken up by a Harvard skier who failed on his first try. The boot hungry student bought a wooden block, some pegs, and a mallet and practiced for a week. His return bout resulted in a near miss and a sigh relief from the Limmer family.
The quality of Limmer boots has brought the family customers from every part of the skiing world and from every class of skiers.
The Limmer customers are themselves an interesting lot. Their feet (the largest being a size 16) have skied over every part of the world. The family collection of letters from customers indicates the extent of their clientele. One letter from the Belgian Congo thanks Peter Limmer for his excellent repair work on an old pair of Limmer shoes, and further acknowledges receipt of a new pair of white ones. When "some Maharaja was in Boston for a lung operation," states Peter Jr. with understandable pride, "we made him a pair of shoes with gold buckles and a pair with felt soles, and a few others."
The climbing boots, too, have their well known users. Numbered among these is James B. Conant '14, who had the usual leather soles and hobnails on his replaced with cleated rubber soles.
The family life of the Limmers includes lots of skiing, and an equal amount of beer drinking. Among the frequent visitors to the shop is an old friend of Peter's, Ernst Seemueller, who sports a cap with "Star Beer Brewery" on it. Ernst's home has the distinction of a pine paneled bar equipped with 72 beer steins, several Italian wine jugs, a pewter edged two litre drinking horn, and plenty of schnapps. Ernst recalls the old days in Bavaria when the children used barrel staves or the long slats from the tops of egg crates for skis.
Peter himself doesn't ski much now because "If I fell down, I'd have to wait till the snow melted to get up." Mama stills skis a bit. Francis and Peter are the athletes in the family. Francis spent several of his war years in the Camp Hale ski troops where Torger Tokle was his platoon sergeant. Peter Jr., however, chose the Air Corps where he was a crew chief on a B-29. Both the boys look forward to a break in the business rush when they can dash up to Tuckerman's or Cannon Mountain with the Brockton Ski Club.
The life of the family is a happy one. Peter spends most of his evenings watching television and drinking beer, but complains "that was I don't ever get to bed." When occasionally he considers his $45 boots underpriced in comparison to New York maker's, Mama claims "We don't make a lot of money but we have a good life and lots of friends." Everything would be complete for Peter with a trip back to the Old Country. "I'd like to go. You buy the tickets, and I'll buy all the beer."