Jay Lehman had a dream. It was a modest dream. But the dream that started in a tiny community among people who avoid worldly attention, would eventually reach around the globe.
In 1955, Jay, a Mennonite, bought a small store on a street corner in Kidron, Ohio, a miniscule farming village nestled in the heart of Amish country. Jay’s father and brother were the store’s first employees. The business was named, simply, Lehman’s Hardware. The business plan was also simple: to supply people who lived simply with the means to continue doing so. The Amish and many Mennonites in Kidron and the surrounding area wanted to stay “off the grid.” They refused to have electric lines running to their houses, certain that to do so would corrupt the inward looking, family oriented, pious Christian lifestyle they cherished. Many eschewed indoor plumbing, and at that time, telephones were virtually un-rung throughout the land that Lehman’s Hardware served. People around Kidron needed candles, gas lamps, gas refrigeration, and woodstoves. They needed non-electric grinders, peelers, borers, shellers, drillers, canners, cookers, incubators, cream separators, water pumps, washing machines and dryers. Those who refused to engage with standard allopathic medicine and pharmacology needed shaving soap, healing salves, tooth powder and hot water bottles.
Lehman’s Hardware supplied what they needed. Lehman’s could have survived small. But the story didn’t end in Kidron, or in Wayne or Holmes counties, or even in Ohio. The little family-run business was destined to expand, but how big, nobody could have predicted.
To understand how Lehman’s, so seemingly limited in its wares and customer base, and so insular in its policies, has had such an impact, reaching out to first-world homesteaders, tradition-loving soccer moms, Y2K end-of–the-worlders, home-schoolers, and third-world development workers alike, you have to understand a little bit more about the Amish and Mennonites.
The Amish (a small offshoot sect of Mennonites) are a strange, apart-living people that in recent years have entered through the back door into the realm of the paradoxically trendy, mainly because of unwanted and uninvited media attention. Trendy because they still typify the American settler image: immigrant farmers, living in cohesive family units and worshipping without fear of oppression. Yet for much of their several hundred year history, they often repelled and frustrated mainstream Americans with their refusal to integrate. Culturally bound by their antiquated language, a form of German that has not evolved since the 1600s, and by their inbred society, their cult-like brand of Christianity, and their avoidance of standard education, the Amish have proved so extreme even to their own kind that inevitably, splinter groups have emerged in great profusion. Thus there are Amish who will accept some forms of artificially generated power (such as propane refrigerators and generators to run their farm equipment); Amish who keep to plain dress, but who will use a tractor as a vehicle (but not as a “car”). And then there are the more liberal and more plentiful Mennonites, out of whose beliefs the Amish religion sprang. Mennonites have rules, rules, rules, varying by region and history, featuring modes of dress from full black bonnets to nothing more than little bits of lace to cover their women’s long hair, and hats for men with hatbands that can only be a certain width, up to no hat requirement at all; from a ban on driving any motored conveyance, through being allowed to hitchhike and hire cars, up to adaptations that include driving cars, but with proscriptions against chrome!
At the far extreme of liberal Menno-ism is Mennonite Central Committee, its leftist proclivities apparent in its rather Stalinist name. MCC is the eyes and ears of the plain people around the world, sending hard-working dedicated volunteers (usually in standard issue American clothes) to live like the locals in some of the poorest countries in the world.
Because MCC exists, Lehman’s grew. In an idealistic maneuver that only a Mennonite would consider, given that they were engaged in a thriving business in Ohio, Jay Lehman and most of his family spent a few years in Africa in the 1960s, serving God by serving the “least of these.” But because fortune seems to favor the Mennonites, Jay’s sabbatical proved blessed. It was in the undeveloped climes that he heard of the critical needs of thousands of missionaries and Peace Corps and other volunteers for the very goods that Jay was selling back home to a handful of Amish. From those encounters, Lehman’s transformed itself from the hardware store on the corner to a multi-building, multinational catalog emporium.
But it is not only the isolated doctor, missionary or Peace Corps worker who sustains Lehman’s. Every time there is a major power outage somewhere in America, Lehman’s gets hit with more orders. 9-11 prompted many people to think in terms of how to survive in case of national disaster, sending more clientele scrambling to the now thoroughly modern Lehman’s website, www.Lehman’s.com. And with more of us acutely conscious of the political and quality implications of buying foreign goods, Lehman’s often comes out on top with their many US (often Amish) manufactured products. In that notable respect, the little store that could, operating on principles of good business and plain virtue, has converted some of its original customers into its current vendors.
While Lehman’s does sell goods from China, and from other countries as well, it offers a wide range of products made in the US, and a fair number made by local entrepreneurs in Ohio’s Amish/Mennonite belt. These include jams and jellies manufactured under the Lehman’s label, very handsome wooden work tables handcrafted by the Amish, toys such as checkered wooden yo-yos, trains and block sets, and the humble sock monkey in a surprising range of styles and prices. You can buy locally-made ice tongs, leather fly-swatters, and an intriguing foot-mounted corn-knife, which I hope I never have a use for.
I am not a Mennonite, but it was while working for MCC in Kenya that I first heard of Lehman’s store, and learned about that most wondrous invention, the Aladdin Lamp. If you have ever struggled with a basic oil lamp, or tried to read by its pallid light, the Aladdin will come as a blazing revelation. It’s far more expensive than the oil lamps you buy in your local hardware store, true—you won’t get one from Lehman’s for less than $134.95—and the very fragile mantles run $15 each and it still needs wicks and oil—but it’s a durable product that puts out 60 candle power of bright read-by-it light, about ten times that of an ordinary oil lamp. After getting eyestrain from trying to write in my diary and stumbling over things in the dark parts of the room as I made my way to bed in our hovel in the unlit African night, I greeted the arrival of my Aladdin from Lehman’s with immodest joy. And, well, I must say, it lit up my life. We were never without an Aladdin lamp again, the same one, actually, that finally wound up in southern Spain, where it worked its magic in our non-electric digs in the nominally electrified Andalusian village of Picena.
The Lehman’s catalog, online or on paper, will charm and seduce even the most hardened super-shopper. There will be something in the catalog that you must have. Whether it be the famous Aladdin lamp, the poplar (and doubtless popular) shoulder yoke for human portage, the “nostalgic candy”, the “pie irons for every occasion” or Lehman’s own poison ivy relief soap—there will be an item you never thought of, and never knew you needed, until it beckons to you from one of the 170 pages of Lehman’s highly readable catalog.
However, for a thrill far beyond that of merely reading about Lehman’s, you should plan a trip to Kidron and visit the main store for yourself as Donnie and I have done (there is one “branch” of Lehman’s, hardly enough to qualify it as a franchise operation, in nearby Mt. Hope, Ohio). Under many roofs, including a pre-Civil-War barn used as a theater where you can view films about the Mennonites and presentations of new products while sitting on authentic Amish church pews, the store is the only commercial establishment I know of which maintains a well-kept, hand-crafted outhouse. Thus whether you are an “English” hobbyist, tourist or curiosity seeker, or a dyed-in-the-homespun-wool Swartzentruber Old Order Amish patriarch or matriarch, you can find a place to relieve yourself in the manner to which you are accustomed (up-to-date indoor facilities are also available, of course).
Divided into large rooms in what can only be described as a labyrinthine complex of interlinked buildings, Lehman’s invites curiosity seekers (knowing you’re bound to buy something while there). You can feel free to carry your camera around the store (just don’t take close-ups of the plain dress people who both shop and sell thereabouts—they are very camera-shy, regarding photographs as earthly vanity). Your zeal for pix to post on FB or send the old fashioned way to friends and relatives will be rewarded with a fairyland of current goods and vintage displays on every surface. And despite prices that can seem (and arguably are) exorbitant, there are bargain bins and tasty food treats to keep you grazing without becoming too irritated by the price tags or overwhelmed by the glut of wonders.
The stove room is vast and warm, with antique models on the highest shelves and new but antique-looking models at floor level. Though Mennonites are plain of dress, they seem not to mind an overdose of ornamentation in the parlor or kitchen, as the sensually gilded wood burning stoves suggest. Cookstoves feature a myriad of color and trim options, allowing you to pay well over $6,000 if that is your worldly desire. But there are also the least decorative and most practical versions for the thrifty and the modest, right down to the “barrel stove kit”—a stacking model in cheery red runs just a little over $100. And it was in the stove room that we encountered the pink pig barbecue cooker, truly a must-have for someone!
The lighting room is a dazzling arcade that combines the homey beauty of brass bases and finials with the multi-colored charm of floral glass shades. On the practical end are carbide lamps (made in India), wind-up flashlights and candle lanterns. While at the store I bought two adorable hand-painted lampshades not advertised in the catalog. This points up another reason to go to Kidron: to see the goods particular to the Amish trade that are not included in the catalog, such as the wide variety of buggy lamps.
None of the toys at Lehman’s require batteries! They range from simple pull toys and the aforementioned sock monkeys and Raggedy Anns (dressed like Amish children) to brainy selections like a gyroscope and the classic kaleidoscope (how I loved that when I was a child). There are big ride-in pedal cars (John Deere has made serious in-roads at Lehman’s) and playthings made of recycled plastic and tin. Croquet sets, kazoos, puzzles and boomerangs are among the time-honored children’s pastimes, and Lehman’s is not afraid of a modern touch or two, offering, for example, a book called Help Your Parents Save the Planet.
Among the grown-up books purveyed at Lehman’s impressive “library” are titles familiar to homesteaders like the classic Putting Food By, Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book and John Seymour’s Self-Sufficient Life. The curious can inform themselves about the Amish by reading The Amish—How They Survive, Living Without Electricity, or by dipping into one of the newest romance genre books, “bonnet rippers” by authors like Beverly Lewis who are out to prove that there is a (gently) passionate side to the Mennonite lifestyle.
A cautionary word about price: Most of us realize that by shopping in specialty stores we will pay more for certain items. We want such enterprises to prosper, and we know that by virtue of location or rarity or hand-labor, some things we want will cost more. Some of us pay gladly, knowing that by doing so we are supporting a worthy cause or maintaining a high quality of goods or a worthwhile tradition of craftsmanship that might, minus the subsidy, disappear altogether. Such is the case, one could argue, at Lehman’s. But this does not mean that that the emptor should disregard the caveat. One example I found was a steam canner, sold by Lehman’s for $69.95. Seeing this practical pot in the Lehman’s catalog after years of canning tomatoes and peaches in a slow water bath that heated my summer kitchen and dampened my enthusiasm for hours at a time, I greatly desired it. But being at home, I felt compelled to do my usual comparison shopping on the web, and found the same item for about half the price on Amazon. So do as I did if you’re catalog shopping, and if you go to Lehman’s, be prepared to be enchanted and to buy a few things on impulse that may later give you a pinch of buyer’s remorse (because of price, not because of quality). It’s an experience we have all shared at one time or another and Lehman’s is hardly the only culprit. But remember the many hard-working soil-tilling planet-saving people whom Lehman’s has served for the past 55 years, delivering their greatly anticipated orders by plane, train, buggy and donkey, so that their unsung lives of service can, like mine in Kenya, be illuminated.
Lehman’s Store is in Kidron and Kidron is way off the main roads. Wherever you roam in the region you will encounter buggies on the roads (drive mindfully!) and plain people on the sidewalks. Nearly every weekend there are colorful farmers markets, flea markets and animal auctions open to the public and distinguished for the lines of buggies hitched to the fences outside. “Wholesale” food stores abound, selling cheese, meat and cooking supplies at rational prices, run by and much patronized by the Mennonites. Meals at family restaurants are as hearty and healthy as it gets, generally buffet style. Be prepared for crowds at dinner time, but no ill-natured jostling. It seems that when surrounded by the quiet folk, we all act just a bit more civil.
In an exploration near the toy rooms, I found myself in the “bell room”—a brass wonderland of dinner bells and harness bells in gleaming profusion. Similarly, I chanced upon a wall of wagon wheels while searching for the snack bar. These marvels cannot be captured in the catalog format.
Seniors love Lehman’s—Donnie and I took his Mom there and she was thrilled to see paraphernalia that she recognized from her Southern farming childhood. Just a hint…..