One of the Lehman’s products with the longest known history is Lehman’s Own Reading 78 Apple Peeler. It’s one of those cool gear-driven Victorian era contraptions that does one thing — peeling apples — and has done it exceptionally well for over 130 years!
In 1993, Jay Lehman had the opportunity to purchase the original molds and some spare parts from the man who’d picked up the peeler after Reading Hardware went out of business in 1950. The peeler’s been a Lehman’s customer favorite ever since, and it hasn’t changed a bit — why mess with success?
All the parts are still sand-cast by hand, in a foundry near our store in Kidron, Ohio. They’re delivered to the workshop behind our store, and the parts are finished and assembled by our craftsmen, Chuck Kirkpatrick and Eli Miller.
Chuck’s been with Lehman’s for several years. “I’d come in to look at a stove, and got to talking with the folks there in the stove room. We talked about several things, and they mentioned that there was a position available.” Chuck had experience with steel fabrication and finishing, and applied for the shop position, where he now works with staff veteran Eli Miller. Miller is someone Chuck calls “a true craftsman.”
Eli has been with Lehman’s since 1996. “Originally, Jay asked me to come in and help with the cash registers, but that’s just not for me,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. He claims the lines of people would make him nervous. “In ’96, I came in to help with the apple peelers, put a few things together, you know,” he says. Chuck quietly points out the number of things that Eli has built over the years: canes, buggy lanterns and reflectors, wooden and glass butter churns, grain mills, bucksaws, nearly everything that’s hand-built for the retail store, the catalog or the website. “Eli also paints all the apple peelers too.” Every single one is hand painted on-site.
Approximately 350 new peelers are sold per year, plus the duo is responsible for repairing another 100 or so. “We see lots of peelers this time of year,” Chuck says. “There’s a local church that brings us theirs to check over, because they use them to make pies for a special fundraiser.”
Eli notes that there’s at least one other local church that does the same thing. Combined, the two churches alone account for about two dozen of the machines inspected and repaired yearly. “The thing that’s most important,” says Eli, “is to never crank the thing without an apple on the arm. That’s why they jam up, if folks try to operate them without an apple. If it jams, and won’t move, try to crank it backward gently. And if it still won’t move, send it on in. We can fix it!”
Chuck says there are about 40 steps to assemble one peeler, and discounting the paint drying time, it takes about an hour and a half to complete assembly. Beautiful vintage drill presses in the back corner of the immaculate workshop are used to drill holes for the various axles and screws that hold the peeler together. Small wooden and plastic boxes hold spare parts for the repair jobs. On the benches, there are a mix of modern and antique technologies to smooth the solid metal parts, punch them, and prepare them for painting and assembly.
“We see peelers that we’ve made, we see peelers that are over 100 years old, and originally made by Reading Hardware in the 1800s,” says Chuck. “Although we can’t fix the very early ones pinned together with rivets, we can fix all the later ones. And they work just as well as the ones we’ll build this week for peeling apples. Once you get the hang of it, you can peel about 10 apples per minute.”