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Langlitz Leathers on Division: A long tradition in the Rose City


PHOTO COURTESY OF LANGLITZ LEATHERS - Ross Langlitz is shown on the right, and an unidentified riding buddy is at left. Ross was one of the first craftsman to create custom leather jackets and pants for motorcyclists; back then, in the 1940s, most leather jackets were designed for aviators, not bike riders. For some motorcycle enthusiasts, it's all about the ride — the thrill of the open road, and the wind blowing in your face.

For others it's all about if the motorbike is not fast enough, if it doesn't sound quite right, or just doesn't feel right. Those are “changers”. They want to make it better.

Ross Langlitz was a one of the latter. A “changer”. And he knew he could make anything better.

Ross loved riding motorcycles; he loved to ride fast, and he loved to race against other competitors — but at that time, in the 1940's, there were few places offering riding gear and clothes for the motor biking community. Using his craftsman skills acquired while working at a glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, Ross created a line of leather riding gear that would eventually become renowned as the “Worlds’ Finest Motorcycle Leathers” — at Langlitz Leathers here in Inner Southeast Portland. Today the business is on S.E. Division Street, just north of the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Long before he became an expert in the leather craft trade, when he was a boy, Ross Langlitz was faced with challenges. As revealed by his granddaughter, Judy Langlitz, on the Langlitz Leathers website, Ross was raised by his grandmother from a very early age.

But in 1928, just one year before the great stock market crash, when he was only nine years old, Ross was required to take his ailing grandmother to a local hospital, where she passed away. Faced with few options after her death, he returned to live with his mother Bernice, and her husband Dan Langlitz.

Times were tough for any young man during the Great Depression, and Ross often clashed with his stepdad over rules and regulations set down for him. When he was just fifteen he worked as a mechanic at the Portland Motor Sport Company, and it was there that he first became infatuated with repairing and riding motorcycles. A ride aboard one of his favorite Harley Davidson bikes or his beloved Velocette relieved Ross of the pent-up anger he held inside.

Ross encountered a dramatic change in his life on a cool October day in 1936 while he and his best friend Roy Wilson were cycling through the bucolic countryside near Vernonia, northwest of Banks. According to his biography, their bikes collided with a truck backing out of a driveway, and both of the young men were seriously injured.

They were rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital in Portland, where it was determined that Roy and Ross had received identical compound fractures to their right legs. Ross received even more demoralizing information when doctors told him his right leg could not be saved, and would have to be amputated.

Ross would spend six long and excruciating months recuperating from this ordeal, but with a lot of hard work and his strong constitution he learned to walk and accept the artificial leg that the hospital provided. Doctors also informed the courageous youngster that he would never be able to ride a motorbike again.

But Ross Langlitz was a “changer” and a fighter, and not long after his release from the hospital he amazed his doctors and hospital staff members by roaring in across the parking lot astride one of his Harley Davidson motorcycles!

Ross continued his passion for motorcycle riding, and once he built up his strength and stamina, he became a regular on the riding circuit, competing in numerous racing events throughout the Northwest. When the military came looking for young men to join in the battle against German and Japanese forces in the second World War, Ross wasn't able to join his classmates and friends because of his injury, so he continued his motorcycle competition, and concentrated on his work at a leather glove factory in Carlton, Oregon, working his way up to Store Manager.

In 1944 his disappointment of not being able to join the war effort overseas was lightened considerably when he met and married the girl of his dreams, Mavis (Pinky) Edwards. Mavis’ first impression of this wild leather coated biker wasn't positive, but his personality eventual won her over.

The devoted couple began regular jaunts on the road on their duo cycles. And, together, they raised three daughters — Nicki, Jackie, and Judy. In the summers, Ross partnered with his longtime friend Roy Wilson as a commercial fisherman on the Oregon Coast, to supplement the family income.

When he was not fishing, or participating on the racing circuit, Ross continued working in his basement perfecting a leather coat that could withstand the rigors of motor biking, yet make the rider look cool at the same time. Nothing was custom fit for motorcyclists at that time, and Ross Langlitz set out to change that.

A jacket bought from Sears Department Store served as a makeshift pattern, and he continued to add modifications to his jacket until his personal requirements were met. Many heads turned when Ross arrived at the race track with this new look.

In fact, fellow riders, friends, and spectators, were so enamored of his hip riding gear that they requested Ross make a leather jacket for themselves. Soon Ross Langlitz was creating his own unique line of custom leather goods and making a considerable income from his state of the art creations.

In 1947 he rented a section of the Culbertson Glove Company at 6th and Morrison, and hired two seamstresses who had previously worked with him at the Portland Glove Company. Together they began manufacturing and selling jackets under the label “Speedway Togs” from his business, the “Leather Garment Shop”. Within a couple of years, Ross changed the name of his garment shop to “Langlitz Leathers”, and orders from around the United States and overseas kept the sewing machines humming.

During the weekdays Ross and his Langlitz Leathers employees kept busy with new orders, but for Ross, sunny weekends were consumed with the thrill and excitement of racing all day long. The “Sidewinder” dirt race track in Clackamas was one of his many favorite places to race. During the heat of one intense competition, spectators were shocked when Ross ran into another bike and his artificial leg went flying onto the track.

Gasps and cries could be heard from the stands as people feared someone had severed a leg in the accident. But the gritty and determined Ross Langlitz continued on to the finish line. Spectators and competitors were so unnerved that it was not recorded how or where Ross and his disconnected limb finished the race.

The 1960's offered a new challenge for the Langlitz Leather Company. A new generation of bikers had arrived on the racing scene, and these young rebels wanted riding gear that was more exciting. They were bored and unimpressed with the traditional blacks and browns usually worn by most bikers. The teenagers of the ‘60's wanted flashy and colorful leathers that would make them stand out in a crowd from other racers.

As he had done before, Ross accepted the “challenge of change” that customers required, and Langlitz Leathers began manufacturing custom jackets and pants with snappy yellows, fire engine reds, and brightly colored oranges. Bikers went so far as to request Ross design matching leather outfits to coordinate with the color of their motorbikes so they could look cool while tooling around the race track.

This rather surprising trend toward color coordination for riders in motorcycle races was an instant success, and spectators were able to distinguish between the riders — and cheer for their favorites — in the distinctive colored outfits that they chose to wear while racing.

When the Langlitz Leather Company moved into their current building at 24th and S.E. Division in 1972, Ross and Mavis decided it was time to retire, and they called upon family members to continue the business. Daughter Jackie took the challenge, later convincing her husband Dave to become a partner. Eventually they passed the torch to sister Nicki's two children Tom and Jenny, who became office managers of Langlitz Leather.

Today, visitors to the store can glimpse the 305 Super Hawk Honda that Ross Langlitz once drove throughout the Northwest, and examine the hundreds of richly-made leather garments hanging about the walls. Patrons from as far away as Japan and Europe occasionally schedule trips to Portland, specifically to order custom leather goods from Langlitz. In the fall of 2012, Mike Wolfe, of “American Picker” fame, made a surprise visit to Langlitz Leather, along with his film crew.

Assistant Manager Bennie Goodson, an avid bike rider and Langlitz Leather connoisseur, recalls that “the semi bi-swing style was created by Ross Langlitz in the 1940's, so that bikers could maneuver their shoulders when bent over a bike”. Nothing was custom-fit for motorcyclists during the 1940's when Ross was designing his first jackets; most leather jackets were created for aviators during those times.

Office manager Scott Smith points out that all custom-order garments are still cut and sewn by an individual cutter and seamstress using some of the original German-designed industrial sewing machines that Ross Langlitz and his employees have used since the 1950's.

And close to a dozen employees still account today for the topnotch customized leather goods that continue the trade mark signature line of Langlitz Leather Company here, and throughout the world.