Challenges don't strap Syracuse leather craftsman

Ralph Minnifield discovered his passion for leather crafting after retirement. And, he won't let any obstacles stop him from his work.

Ralph Minnifield never considered leather making his job.

He worked as a truck driver for pay and admired a sturdy leather backpack he once ordered from Jim DeWitt’s store on James Street in Syracuse. So when he retired in Syracuse from driving, he visited DeWitt — this time shopping for a leather-crafting mentor.

Photo: Yufei Wu
Ralph Minnifield uses a magnifier to help him read the number of the leather 3-D stamps in his workshop.

DeWitt is now one of Minnifield’s best friends.

“He taught me how to create and love what you are doing,” Minnifield said. “If there is anything he didn't know, he referred me to others who can help.”

Challenges with Minnifield’s eyesight threaten his new-found passion and his America’s Best Belts and Accessories business, though.

Terri Jennings said doctors diagnosed her husband, now 73, with macular degeneration four years ago.

“He thought he was going completely blind,” Jennings said. “And that was emotionally very difficult.”

The National Federation for the Blind and the Commission for the Blind helped them, though. Minnifield received two different operations on each eye. He is legally blind, but his vision has stabilized somewhat.

Because of the condition, Minnifield can’t do his fancy polishing.

“Just some simple designs I can do. I have to learn it all over again,” he said. “But Terri makes me work better.”

Jennings involved herself more with the accessory part in the business, which adds the feminine touch to the brand. She helps her husband with detailed works like painting, dyeing and carving. Before, Jennings made her own designs in beading and wire jewelry along with leather.

When first starting his craft, Minnifield made belts and wallets as a hobby for family and friends. Then, he started to take part in craft shows like Plowshares Craftsfair and Peace Festival in Syracuse and the Syracuse Arts & Crafts Festival. He sells a few of his items at Down Under Leather store on Crouse Avenue in Syracuse, and will soon have items at Crazy Daisies greenhouse and market.

Minnifield also took different home-study courses to improve handmade skills.

Through a series of processes like stamping, skiving, tooling, dyeing, and smoothing, Minnifield can customize a unique belt from a piece of rough leather.

“People want something that’s gonna last,” he said. “A lot of my orders come from people see me at craft show.”

Minnifield designs book covers, bracelets, backpacks, coin purses, wallets and leather carvings.

Now, Minnifield works as an instructor at the Southwest Center and teaches a youth group about the beauty of leather crafting on Thursday nights.

“When you are doing something you enjoy, time really flies,” he said. “It’s been a blessing that I can do this, and it keeps me going all the time.”

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