Ely's leather-working icon dies in Mexico at 61
Henry Held, longtime maker of moosehide chopper mitts and an Ely icon, died Sunday at age 61 while vacationing in Ixtapa, Mexico. Held, who worked from a hole-in-the-wall shop called Henry's Shoe Repair on Ely's main street, drowned while swimmin...
Henry Held, longtime maker of moosehide chopper mitts and an Ely icon, died Sunday at age 61 while vacationing in Ixtapa, Mexico.
Held, who worked from a hole-in-the-wall shop called Henry's Shoe Repair on Ely's main street, drowned while swimming in the ocean Sunday evening, according to his wife, Florencia Held. Apparently, he had just finished supper and wanted to go for a swim but got caught in undertow or a rip current, friends say.
"Henry was truly an Ely character," said friend John Mills, who shared coffee almost daily with Held. "The town is going to have a huge hole without Henry around. He was an attraction himself."
Held migrated to Ely from Minneapolis in 1973 and settled on the Echo Trail. A leather craftsman, he began repairing shoes and making his durable chopper mitts in 1974. He also made leather belts, wallets and custom items.
Most recently, Held's business occupied a small room of a canoe-tripping outlet store owned by Piragis Northwoods Co. His booth was a fixture at Ely's seasonal festivals such as the Blueberry Festival.
Held had a rough-hewn exterior with a dense beard and bushy brunet hair. He was a complex person with a sharp wit and strongly held opinions, more sociological than political. But he had a gentle side, too, and a way of letting people know he cared for them.
"He was always funny," said friend and neighbor Bert Heep. "He was a great storyteller. He had a big heart. He was very tender in many ways.
"And he could be judgmental. That was just Henry. He was unabashedly honest. He wasn't afraid to say what he felt about you or anyone else. Some people didn't know how to take Henry."
You could buy Henry's leather goods at other retail outlets, but it wasn't the same as buying directly from Henry.
"You walked away with a unique shopping experience when you bought from Henry," Mills said.
Duluth's Libby Fena remembers shopping at Henry's when his shop was in a garage more than 20 years ago.
"I remember he had a turtle on his counter," Fena said. "It was not alive. It was a stuffed turtle. Henry said he would give me a discount if I'd pet his turtle."
She became a lifelong friend.
"For me, he was like a father figure," she said. "He always had wise things to say."
Ely's Nancy Piragis was a good friend of Henry.
"He loved to have people think he was a rough, grizzled old man," she said, "but he was such a sensitive softie. ... I could talk to him like I could talk to a girl."
When Henry arrived in Ely in the 1970s, he was one of several unique individuals that local residents often referred to as hippies. Most of them lived up the Echo Trail north of town.
"He didn't live a hippie life," Mills said. "He had things he'd spend his money on, but other things he'd be frugal about."
Held eschewed technology, Mills said, but reluctantly joined the computer age in recent years and developed a Web site for his business.
Henry underwent bypass surgery for his heart several years ago, and some people said that smoothed some of his sharper edges. In recent years, he provided home health care to several older Ely residents.
Henry loved to paddle his kayak along lakeshores, studying crayfish, minnows and other creatures, Mills said.
"Nature fascinated Henry," he said. "He would turn over rocks to look for salamanders or whatever bugs were in the ground."
He was widely known and was loved by the tourists who throng to Ely each summer.
"His shop was always full of people from outside the area, from far and wide," said Steve Piragis of Piragis Northwoods Co. "They migrated to that shop. He had time to talk to them."
Held also was appreciated locally.
"He has more local buddies than anybody I know," Piragis said. "All the loggers and everyone love the stuff he makes."
Henry is survived by his wife, Florencia, of Ely; by his sister, Gail Held of Duluth; his father, Jerome Held, of Minnetonka, Minn.; a son, Tom, of Albuquerque, N.M.; and a daughter, Jennifer, of Oregon.
No funeral or memorial service is planned, although friends may hold a gathering in the spring, Florencia Held said.