Lehman’s is an omni-channel retailer in Ohio’s Amish country that specializes in non-electric and historical technology. Their motto is, “For a Simpler Life.” They are deeply committed to the American spirit of self-reliance, and want their customers to experience the pride of, “I made it myself.”
Lehman's (then called Lehman Hardware and Appliances) was started in 1955 by 25-year-old Jay Lehman. Jay had just returned from Germany, where he was the mechanic and truck driver for a team of volunteers that built refugee housing. This was a formative experience that taught him mechanical know how, and gave him a heart dedicated to serving others.
Back in the USA, Jay was looking for a job. A little hardware was for sale in Kidron, his home town of several hundred residents, and Jay borrowed money from his father to purchase it. Back in the 1950s, every small town had their own local hardware. What made his store different were his two goals:
- To serve the local Amish people with non-electric tools and appliances so they could maintain their non-electric way of life
- To preserve the past for future generations.
After all, if there are no butter churns, then no one is churning butter.
“This was not a normal hardware store,” Jay says, “We did a lot of repairing and that's what I really liked.” Amish customers were looking for products every other retailer told them were no longer available. Kerosene-fueled cook stoves, propane-powered refrigerators and hand-cranked grain mills are just a few examples. Jay's heart of service made it hard for him to say no, and soon he was searching the world for the products they needed.
Jay Lehman founded the store in 1955 to serve the local Amish and others without electricity. His vision was to preserve the past for future generations.
Jay’s brother Dave and his father Ezra, manage the business with Pearl, their sister and Raymond Steiner, the first non-family employee.
Jay and his family take an extended service assignment overseas, where Jay realizes that missionaries, doctors and business people working in developing countries need non-electric products due to unreliable or non-existent electricity.
Mt. Hope Hardware was purchased and remains an important branch location for Lehman’s.
The Oil Embargo creates a huge demand for non-electric appliances and wood stoves. Customers begin coming to Lehman’s from out of state.
While still in high school, Galen Lehman, son of Jay Lehman and current president of Lehman's, joins the company. He stocks shelves, sweeps and occasionally waits on customers.
Lehman’s Non-Electric Good Neighbor Heritage Catalog is created after national attention turns to Lehman’s for old-fashioned, but brand new products.
Glenn Kauffman, Jay’s brother-in-law, joined Lehman’s, bringing his love of antiques to the store design.
Dramatic physical expansion occurs at Lehman’s in Kidron, with the building of two warehouses and an expansion of the store.
Hollywood comes calling as Lehman's becomes known for authentic, old-fashioned props.
Kevin Lehman, youngest son of founder Jay Lehman, joins the business right out of college as the catalog editor. He leaves in 1999 to pursue other options in Vermont.
In the face of skeptism, Lehman's launches Lehmans.com to sell nonelectric goods online. This is still one of the fastest growing parts of the business. Glenda Lehman Ervin, current VP of Marketing and Jay Lehman’s daughter, joins the company.
The “Y2K” scare puts the small company on the map as people stock up on non-electric products. Major national media ascends on Lehman’s. Reporters from The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, News and television stations visit the tiny town of Kidron to get the scoop on the business that uses high tech to sell low tech all over the world.
The non-electric catalog is printed for the first time in full color.
Lehman's marks half century in business with a major store expansion, including a reconstructed Civil-War-era barn.
Lehman's reaffirms the commitment to providing “authentic products that work for life.” It involves serving a wide variety of customers, from the “chronically nostalgic” to urban homesteaders, rural survivalists and missionaries, to those looking for USA-made or green products.
The Flood – In a flash flood in the early morning hours, a million gallons of water and 32 tons of mud flood the entire 45,000-square-foot store, forcing merchandise off the shelves and carrying stoves, refrigerators and cast iron pots throughout the building. Parts of the store opened the next day.
Preppers (those preparing for a massive power outage) become a key Lehman’s customer.
Lehman’s adapted a new tagline, ‘Simple Products for a Simpler Life’
Lehman’s continues to use high tech to sell low tech and is active on many social media websites including Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter and Instragram.
In the early years, Jay worked alone. He would open the store at 7 am, six days a week. He would close up at twilight, then load up his aging pickup truck and make deliveries until the lights in the farmhouses were turned off – then he knew it was time to go home.
Because he was willing to source, manufacturer and stock specialized products, his business grew. Soon he hired younger brother, Dave Lehman, then his father, Ezra Lehman, then his sister, Pearl Taylor. Today, he says, “It was a family affair to start with, and it still is, although it's a big family now (over 120 employees, and most of them aren’t even related to me).”
Meanwhile, the Amish community was growing. Today, there are Amish communities in over 40 states, many of whom once lived near Lehman’s. Because of this “Amish Diaspora,” Lehman’s was soon getting letters from all over the USA looking for products.
And, it wasn’t just Amish placing orders. Folks from all walks of life began to hear about Lehman’s specialized products. Jay says, “Serve the Amish well, and they’ll tell their ‘English’ friends. Serve the old folks well, and soon their kids will shop with you, too!”
Soon, national media began to report on the quirky little hardware store in northeast Ohio’s Amish Country. One of the first was Organic Gardening, which praised Lehman’s for their line of applesauce and tomato sauce makers. Orders poured in from all over the country.
The Beginning of the Catalog:
Customers wrote letters, asking for information on other products Lehman’s carried. In the late 1970’s, Lehman’s produced its first mail order catalog, which was just a bundle of Xeroxed papers with hand written prices on them. After the Xerox machine broke down, Lehman’s hired a small Amish printer to print a black and white catalog (because at the time the Amish disapproved of color printing).
Throughout the late 20th century, Lehman’s grew by mailing catalogs to existing customers and by offering the catalog for $2 or $3 in magazines like Mother Earth News. By the end of the century, they were mailing more than one million catalogs a year. Of course, they soon outgrew the tiny Amish printer and switched instead a color catalog, which they mailed all over the world. The postmaster in the tiny town of Kidron once said that Lehman’s alone justified the existence of her small town post office. Mailing a catalog allowed Lehman’s to showcase our products to new customers, thereby growing the company. Without the post service, Lehman’s would not have grown into an international business.
Despite being the national headquarters for “low tech,” Lehman’s never turned its back on new technology. In fact, Lehman’s was one of the first companies to sell on the internet, thanks to a customer who worked in Silicon Valley. He called Jay’s son, Galen, one day in 1996 to talk about this new thing called, The Worldwide Web. Galen was highly skeptical, but agreed to give it a try. By the end of the year, Lehman’s had sold more than $5,000 in product on the internet. Today, in close connection to the printed catalog, Lehman’s uses digital and email marketing, e-commerce and social media to educate, entertain and provide products to customers. In short, Lehman’s uses high tech to sell low tech.
Lehman’s diverse product line, (“Everything you need for heat, food, light and water,” they like to say) includes some unusual items. They have countless ways to harvest and store food, hand-cranked water pumps, kerosene lights and wood-fired cook stoves. The company gained national attention in the late 1990’s, when the threat of Y2K, also known at the millennia bug, frightened modern consumers around the world. They were concerned their traditional way of life would end if the power grid shut down when the computer clock moved from 1999 to 2000. The company received thousands of calls, faxed, letters and visitors from across the country. Most were thrilled to find out that Lehman’s was still producing time-tested, people-powered products most thought were no longer made. The company’s legacy knowledge was put into use, teaching people not just what the products are, but how and when to use them. International media (from Nightly News with Tom Brokaw; National Public Radio; USA Today; The London Telegraph; The Chicago Tribune and many more) focused on Lehman’s because, as the journalists searched the worlds for other companies with the same business model, they found none.
The Amish still shop at Lehman’s today, however in a twist of irony the Amish also are key vendor for Lehman’s. Working at home crafting hand-weaved baskets, hickory rockers and hand tools, Lehman’s is still helping them to maintain their way of life, with farm, family and God as the center.
And there’s a diverse group of customers as well. Twenty-first century Preppers visit the site, wanting to stock their bug-out bags. On any given day, letters may arrive (yes, many customers still mail checks, although most now use the website) from ranchers in Utah, the owner of an island in the Bahamas or an antique restoration service in Minnesota. Urban apartment dwellers look to Lehman’s for environmental supplies. Homesteaders living off the land in Alaska also turn to Lehman’s for help.
Despite over 60 years in business, Lehman’s is still doing business the way they started. Jay’s children, Galen and Glenda, now run the business. Galen says, “We live to serve.”
As this family owned business plans for the future, they remain deeply committed to the concept that the past holds something worth preserving for the good of our future. Along those lines, they are purchasing manufacturers of old line products like Aladdin kerosene lamps and the cast iron Reading Apple Peeler.
The tradition of service continues today as Lehman’s reaches a new generation by teaching them the old-time ways that their grandparents knew by heart. With product experts on staff, a highly trafficked blog with information on food preservation, raising livestock and the joys of making it yourself, a print catalog that drives consumers to Lehman’s on-line, the company artfully uses high tech to sell low tech.