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Creative Destinations: Way Before Hipsters Wore Flannels, There Was Lehman’s

Lehman’s Hardware and its proudly old-fashioned tools and gadgets draw up to 500,000 a year to this Amish Country burg.

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Raising and canning your own produce — and maybe keeping a few chickens. Getting down and dirty with hand tools and crafts. Living like a pioneer or a lumberjack — even though you live in Williamsburg or Silverlake — may be in vogue right now, but for some parts of the country, “authenticity” isn’t a passing fad. Lehman’s Hardware, a sort of anti-big-box store in the unincorporated town of Kidron, Ohio, about 70 miles northeast of Columbus, has been selling practical and proudly old-fashioned tools, clothes, toys, and food for over 50 years.

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Lehman’s opened in 1955 to sell to the local Amish population — the largest in the U.S. Since then, the store has expanded a great deal, but it hasn’t drastically altered what it sells. Wood-burning cook stoves, hand-operated water pumps, and other off-the-grid items remain its bread and butter. The current store, 30,000 square feet after a major expansion in 2007, looks as if it’s been here far longer than the Eisenhower administration: it’s made of hand-hewn wood and pegs and formed from an old log cabin and two barns that predate the Civil War. Inside, the antiques mounted on the wall fight for customers’ attention with the densely packed groups of lamps, Amish-style hats, gas-powered refrigerators, and hand tools.

Set designers for Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain have scored props from Lehman’s.

It took the gas crisis of the 1970s to make Lehman’s much more than a slightly offbeat local store — now, it has roughly a hundred employees, and over half a million people visit the store each year. Although the store has more Amish customers that it ever has, they represent only about 5% of the total base. (A smaller branch of the store, 10 miles to the south, caters more closely to local Amish needs.) The Amish aren’t just customers, either; they’re also suppliers. Items such as Lehman’s bench shelves and an “improved” version of the iconic Flexible Flyer sled are exclusives made by local Amish craftsmen.

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Lehman’s also carries a large number of the manly, sturdy tools that are dear to urban woodsmen. These include axes by Snowe & Nealley, the Maine manufacturer that almost certainly supplies New York boutique Best Made Company with the axes it paints, paints, polishes, crates, and then sells in limited editions for $250 or more.

Although none of Lehman’s products has a shot at becoming the next iPad or being reviewed on Gizmodo, it would be a mistake to think that Lehman’s is technophobic itself. Its current owner, the son of the founder, tweets frequently, and the house blog bristles with frequent posts about cooking, homesteading, and getting by with less. Along with its store, there are catalog and internet operations that have supplied survivalists, back-to-the-land types, Doctors Without Borders and other charities, and even Hollywood: set designers have snatched up new-but-antiquated butter churns, hats, and lanterns for appearances in Pirates of the Caribbean, Gangs of New York, and Cold Mountain.

But at this time of year, with the holidays approaching, its potential fans probably include just about anyone hankering for a brass slide whistle, toy farm animals, crocks, the surprisingly popular pant stretcher, or any of the hundreds of other nostalgic, goofy, and useful items sold here.

[Photos: 1: Lehman’s; 2: Scottamus; 3: Lehman’s 4: AmsterdamAsp]