Leo Leonard, affectionately known as Clawhammer Jack, was an authentic urban horseman who maintained a horse palace in the heart of Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood for almost five decades. A third generation Irishman, Leonard was a horse whisperer and a former caléche driver who lived in the same neighbourhood just below the Bell Centre for almost all of his 86 years. He held out almost to the end against developers who wanted his property for office and commercial space and for affordable and subsidized housing. He died on July 5 several months after finally moving out of Griffintown.
A flinty character, Leonard was a man of few words. What struck you about him was his piercing blue eyes and his ruddy glow.
“He was a fixture in the community, a legend. He had a way with horses that was unbelievable. He was just magic with his horses,” said Patricia Burns, who profiled Leonard in her history of the neighbourhood The Shamrock & The Shield.
“He was a tough man, a stout man with super powerful hands, and nothing could be more impressive to see how gently he handled his horses,” said one of his former tenants, Doug Palmer. “He would never put a horse down. He would pay to put it out to pasture where it could die on its own. He was one with his horses.”
Leonard was also a repository of Griffintown’s colourful history. The fourth of ten children in a fisherman’s family, he was born May 24, 1925 in a slum district across the bridge from Griffintown known as Goose Village. His love of horses began at the age of 14 when he went to work driving an ice wagon during The Depression. He was educated at St. Anne’s Boys’ School. In the summers he worked on the waterfront as cooper, mending barrels. In the winter he worked for the city cleaning snow with a team of horses. During the Second World War he was riveter. He was also a waiter at the Belmont Tavern before he started driving caléches.
There are several versions of how he acquired the nickname Clawhammer. Leonard liked to say it was because he was adept with the tool which he used to repair barrels; another version is that he used a clawhammer to settle a fight during a brawl. When he bought the stables which date from 1862 for $15,000 in 1967. his deed of sale had a grandfather clause which allowed him to keep horses on the property. Leonard never worked his horses in the rain or when it was too hot. He was proud of the fact that he never lost a horse from his stables. “We’ve had a few small accidents, a broken wheel, something like that, but I never had a horse killed or a carriage demolished,” he is quoted telling Burns.
When the development plan for Griffintown was unveiled in 2007, Leonard saw the writing on the wall. Although he eventually sold the property his widow, Hugette, would like to see the developers keep the site as is.
A foundation has been established to acquire and preserve the private property as a working stable and historic museum. Foundation president, landscape architect Juliette Patterson, says the developers are sympathetic to the idea. While the stables, tack house and corral are considered a municipal heritage property, the site is not protected. Heritage Montreal’s Dinu Bumbaru has said while development in the area is a good idea, razing the stables would be a mistake. “They are not a great monument,” says Bumbaru, “but they are the only remnants to remind us that the driving force behind the metropolis was the horse. There is room in the city’s heritage policy to keep Leonard’s stables, and perhaps integrate them into a network of Montreal memory to remind us it.” Leonard’s one-time neighbour Chris Gobeil agrees. “He was a preservationist, he had a head and a heart for history, he was direct, living link between the horse and Montreal’s equestrian history for close to a century.” Richard Burman, the author of a book on Griffintown says Leonard was part of the fabric of the neighbourhood, ànd was very generous in sharing his knowledge. ``He had a real sense of human contact,” said Burman.
Leonard leaves his wife of 50 years, Hugette Peticlerc.