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When a gray-haired stranger with gold-tipped teeth began buying up property here a few months ago, people started talking.

And when the stranger filled one of the buildings he purchased on Main Street with his sculptures -- massive creations of welded steel -- the talk intensified.

"A lot of people around here do have their doubts about the man -- his real intentions and his abilities," said Norris Stone, the city assessor.

"He's obviously a renegade," said Shirley C. Weast, a local real estate agent. "Dresses like he doesn't have a nickel, is friendly -- so people like him even though we really don't know him. He's almost like a fly the way he darts in and out of town so you don't know really know where he is most of the time."

This much is known: His name is Rod Dowling.

And according to a publicity statement released several years ago in Canada, where he was known most recently, Dowling was born in Tasmania and educated in Australia. He will be 62 Tuesday. He has been a sailor, a long-distance runner, scuba diver and pilot. He began as an apprentice in the building trades and moved on to designing and building homes.

And he is buying properties in Salamanca. But why?

People here aren't sure, but they believe it has something to do with the recent negotiations on leases with the Seneca Indian Nation, which owns the land upon which the city sits. The leases, which had cost the residents a dollar apiece annually, now may soar to as much as $1,000 a year.

"One thing for sure," Mrs. Weast said. "He's busy buying distressed properties from a lot of distressed buyers."

How much has be bought?

"It's pretty difficult to know exactly just how many buildings Dowling has purchased," Stone explained, "because he operates under about four different names. But we do know for sure that he owns at least seven on Main Street and several others around town."

David Franz, Salamanca's city attorney, views Dowling as someone who saw a lot of opportunities and bargains.

"He came to town -- moseyed about -- saw these tremendous bargains and started buying," Franz said. "There was a restaurant on Main Street he bought. Had apartments over the restaurant. The whole thing sold for $25,000. Any foreigner coming here sees more opportunities than those living here, and they are not frightened off by the lease."

About 20 or so years ago, Dowling made the same kind of arrival in the small town of Thornberry, about 100 miles north of Toronto.

"He just appeared," Gordon Pyatt, then the mayor of Thornberry, recalled. "Real quiet like. Matter of fact, he had been here a month or two before I actually met the man. Certainly do remember that he did a lot of sculpturing which, at the time and maybe even now, seemed a little far out for this type of community. But there are a few of them still around."

For his part, Dowling is a quiet man.

He refuses to talk much about himself and refuses to discuss the impact of new lease costs on his new properties. He also refuses to talk about what he has purchased other than those on Main Street.

"It's all premature," he insisted during an interview a few days ago. "But I will tell you this, I would like to see Main Street turned into a street of art galleries, shops and studios."

"Well," Stone reacted, "if he gets the people in here, we don't care what he does because there sure isn't much left on Main Street now."

Dowling, for his part, prefers to talk about art and his interest in Native American art.

He has an ally in Carson Waterman, a Native American artist who has agreed to create art with Dowling.

"We will do sculptures and paintings," Waterman explained, "which might be primarily influenced by the white man's culture with some Native American culture added and vice versa."

Dowling met Waterman at the Seneca Museum.

"I immediately was impressed with his work," Dowling said. "It will be Carson who has the first studio on Main Street."

A small studio, above the array of Dowling's sculptures, is a melange of canvasses, paints and brushes and a few impressive works Waterman has completed for the new studio.

They need no explanations. The elder with his bonnet of brilliant feathers, the brave in his canoe.

Downstairs, Dowling explains the maze of steel and "found objects," as he describes some of his creations.

"They are recognizable abstracts," he said.

Back in Thornberry, Pyatt remembers that Dowling built a very elegant home and renovated an old mill property into a beautiful restaurant.

"We knew he was from Australia, but no one ever knew where he had been before he came to Thornberry," Pyatt said. "He was very visual in the community, but he didn't really mix with people enough to make any permanent friends or long-lasting relationships. Nor did he make any enemies. He didn't come in here and take advantage of anybody. But then one day, he said good-bye and was gone."

Dowling insisted he is not going to say good-bye to Salamanca.

"I found this little place," he said, "after seeing Ellicottville where a lot of Canadians have bought property. I like the Indian culture here, the Indian Nation and the river. Ellicottville doesn't have a river, you know.

"One of these days, I am going to move here permanently, and I am going to die here."

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