Editor’s note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Galen Lehman will take on anyone with his scythe. “I can cut grass fast or faster than a weed eater,” he says. Furthermore, after that grass is shorn, his electric-tool wielding opponent will be left with ears ringing and the stench of burnt oil clinging to his skin. Not Lehman. “I won’t smell like petrochemicals,” he says. “And my ears will have been filled with birdsong and the gentle swish, swish, swish of my scythe.”
Lehman’s, a family business in the small farming community of Kidron, Ohio, harks back to the days when a product’s bells and whistles were actual bells and whistles. In 1955, while the rest of the country swooned over newfangled inventions like wireless TV remotes and microwave ovens, Jay Lehman started selling all things non-electrical to the local Amish population. Over the next six decades, others discovered the business, says Galen, who is Jay’s son and the CEO. (Jay’s daughter, Glenda Lehman Ervin, is vice president of marketing.) Today, gardeners, environmentalists, preppers, homesteaders, and the chronically nostalgic flock to this 120-employee business for their cook stoves and canning jars, candle-making supplies, and composting toilets.
What those populations share is the desire for a simpler life. Simple doesn’t mean easy, Galen explains: “It is not simpler to light an oil lamp than it is to flip on a light switch.” At Lehman’s, simpler means closer to nature. It means labor performed with your hands. It means understanding how products work just by looking at them. Often it means working alongside neighbors: easing one another’s loads.
Those values are cherished by the Amish, who still account for 20 percent of retail sales. The company also wholesales some products, like gas refrigerators, into Amish communities. In addition, about 250 of Lehman’s roughly 1,600 vendors are Amish. “Now we are buying more from Amish manufacturers than we are selling to the Amish,” says Jay Lehman, 90, who remained active in the business until a few months ago.
As more tourists and other outsiders (known as “English” in the Amish community) have descended on the store, most of Lehman’s Amish customers have retreated to the company’s second, smaller location in nearby Mount Hope. “The outsiders are sometimes a little invasive with their cameras and their questions and even just staring,” says Galen.
The Lehmans, who are Mennonite, embrace technology for their company: using high-tech to sell low-tech, as they like to say. E-commerce comprises half of sales, and the business is active on social media. But walk in the store on a given day and you might see a wood carver fashioning country scenes for display in the buggy barn or wander into a yoga class that incorporates goats.
Hank Rossiter, a retired nurse who lives nearby, has been buying sprinkling cans, kerosene lamps, axes, wood splitters, kitchen gear, and many other goods at Lehman’s for decades. Trying to give up plastics, he and his wife Marilyn recently went there to pick up some stainless steel drinking straws, and the tiny brushes to clean them. “I may think, how can I simplify this? How can I reduce my carbon footprint?” Rossiter says. “I’m pretty sure Lehman’s will have the answer.”
What would the Amish do?
Jay Lehman was born and raised in Kidron, a farm kid who plowed and planted, then worked as a mechanic in the local garage. In 1955, the owner of the local hardware store was retiring, and he got loans to take it over. For the first few years he had to pay rent on the building, so he drove a school bus while his father looked after the store.
The previous owner had carried a large stock of goods for the Amish, and Jay decided to stick with that strategy. In the evenings, he roamed around the countryside in a pickup truck delivering purchases too large to fit in his customers’ buggies. “I would do it until the houses had no more lights in them,” says Jay. “Then I knew it was time to go home.”
The business grew slowly. Then, in 1961, Jay moved to Africa, where he arranged travel for missionaries. A period in New York doing similar work followed. His brother, David, ran the store until Jay’s return in the mid-’70s. The oil crisis was in full swing, “and everyone was panicking,” says Jay. “They said, what do we do? Well, what do the Amish do? They get along without these things. If the Amish can do this, we can do it too.” Sales soared.
Then a magazine called Organic Gardening published a laudatory article about the Victoria Strainer, a product sold by Lehman’s for separating out seeds from applesauce and tomatoes. Orders poured in from around the country; and the new customers wanted to know what else Lehman’s sold. The company mailed out product brochures and a catalog that by century’s end would reach more than a million customers and eventually earn Lehman’s a place in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.
During the 1980s and ’90s, nostalgia largely drove new sales “People in their 60s and 70s wanted to do things the way they remembered when they were younger,” Galen says. Eventually, the rosy glow of a cherished past gave way to the dark clouds of an uncertain future. Lehman’s next big surge occurred in the late 1990s. Y2K fears stoked the Prepper movement, and even non-survivalists stocked up on lanterns, water filters, and kerosene cookers. Subsequent end-time panics–the end of the Mayan calendar, the blood moon prophecies–sparked mini-booms.
But recently the Preppers have grown less important to Lehman’s. Galen is OK with that. “We don’t think being prepared means hunkering down and arming yourself against the zombie apocalypse or whatever is out to get you,” he says. “Being prepared is being ready with supplies that can help you and your neighbors and your family.”
Looking for the last big thing
For a business that regards “new and improved” as an oxymoron, sourcing can be a challenge. The non-electric market has been shrinking since the store’s earliest days, causing manufacturers to shut down or switch product lines. As a result, the Lehmans have sometimes scrambled for new suppliers, sourcing kerosene cook stoves from South America and gas refrigerators from Sweden, for example. The large majority of products, however, remain American-made.
The company has occasionally acquired expiring product lines, like apple peelers from the once-mighty Reading Hardware Company. In 2015, Lehman’s took over the struggling 108-year-old Aladdin Lamp Company, whose kerosene models incorporate a mantel over the wick to produce an unusually bright, hot light.
Occasionally, Galen designs products himself. Working in Lehman’s R&D facility–a corner of the store with some plywood benches and hammers–he recreated the Daisy butter churn, which had been out of production since midcentury. “It’s a pretty good replication of the original with some improvements,” he says. “It churns faster because of changes I made to the paddle.” He has also produced a hand-cranked grain mill out of cast aluminum rather than cast iron, which allowed him to cut the price in half.
The store’s Amish-made products are extensive, ranging from rocking chairs and cherry baskets to whisk brooms and croquet sets. Amish manufacturers suit Lehman’s because they operate on a small scale and so don’t require huge minimum orders. The flip side is they typically can’t or won’t ramp up volume when demand for something unexpectedly surges. “A lot of times they will say, ‘I can’t make your product because it is time to make hay or I need to plant the fields,'” Galen says.
Wherever they’re sourced, many products arrive without instruction manuals or other documentation. As a staff resource, the company maintains a library of old books on subjects like canning and butchering. Galen has bolstered that knowledge by interviewing people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s about the finer points of operating old-style tools and devices. Working with an employee he created training programs for the company’s main product lines. Employees certified in the operation of oil lamps, water pumps, and other devices receive a bump in pay.
While the company’s nostalgia-driven demand is, by law of nature, declining, Lehman’s is enjoying both more and new business from other sources. The Amish population is growing both in the United States and around the world. And those notoriously screen-addicted Millennials have been surprisingly receptive to the company’s message of living simply and well.
“You talk to people who work in technology,” Galen says. “They go home, and more than anything else, they want to get some dirt under their fingernails.”