Tuesday, February 4, 2014

First decade… 1948 - 1958

First decade… 1948 - 1958

My Father acquired a Toro dealership in 1948.  I doubt he knew that he found a product to grow a business around.  Power lawnmowers were not new, Toro introduced a consumer sized powered Lawn Mower in the mid 1930's.  However in the 1930’s the suburbs hadn't been invented yet and with a limited market they were very expensive.  With the post war building boom came yards that were too large for push mowers.  A power lawnmower in 1950 was still expensive item.  A walk behind power mower could cost a homeowner 2 to 3 weeks’ salary.  As the demand for power lawnmowers increased prices would drop and the suburban sized power lawnmower moved from luxury item to a necessity.

It was never made clear how my Father and Toro got together, however with virtually no investment my Father would be given exclusive rights to sell Toro lawn equipment in the 2 counties that comprised the Lehigh Valley. This was postwar retailing, where business relationships were consummated with a handshake rather than a contract.  My Father would go on to slice up his territory by wholesaling Toro products to other retailers within his territory.

The lawnmower necessitated a change in my Fathers handyman business. The lawnmower was not an item he could sell out of the back of his Jeep.  The lawnmower would need a showroom.  My Father installed some large windows in my Grandfather’s garage, and Donald W Leiser Sales and Service was born. As the lawnmower business grew the handyman business would be phased out. Toro lawnmowers would be the single product that would support my Fathers new business.

Location is always very important and establishing the business in the center of Northampton county would give my Father’s business access to a strong middle class.  The Lehigh Valley was the home of Mack Truck, Bethlehem Steel, and Ingersoll Rand.  The Lehigh Valley’s many college's that included Lehigh, Lafayette, Muhlenberg, Moravian and others would get a boost from the GI Bill.  This would help grow a, middle and upper middle class community with disposable income.  The town of Bethlehem was built on the side of a mountain. Between downtown Bethlehem and my Grandfather’s house would be miles of flat land ready for suburban development.

Even with the opening of the retail store this would not set my Father on a lifelong career path.  He would find other business opportunities to explore. Dad’s lifelong love of the outdoors would start another business. My Parents had a season long campsite at Promised Land State Park in the Pocono Mountains. When the State of Pennsylvania started leasing building sites my Father would lease a site and build a cabin.  During construction Dad would watch the neighbor struggle in his cabin building project.  In helping the neighbor with his cabin my Father would notice the neighbor’s lack of building skills. This would give him the idea of building cabin shells. He would install the foundation, erect the floor, walls, and roof and the owner would finish off the inside. While this would be a mostly weekend and off season business Dad would find customers for his building services.

My Father had only completed a few of these shells, when back to back hurricanes spawned flooding would devastate the Pocono Mountains in 1955. The flooding would kill hundreds of people; wash out most of the bridges.  Dad would fly my mother and me up to the cabin site he was working on to check on it. The floods had pick up the enter lumber pile and push it against the foundation without the loss of a single board.  He would finish that cabin; however the demand for cabins in the Pocono’s had died. 

Another product that would be a stepping stone in the growth and diversity of the business would be the backhoe. Today the backhoe loader is now found on every construction and landscaping project, however before World War II the backhoe loader as we know it did not exist. Digging a basement or digging a trench was accomplished by hand or with a “Steam Shovel”.  The prewar power shovels needed to be hauled to a construction site in pieces and assembled before use. Moving a power shovel from one job to another could take days.

My Father would start by buying a Shawnee or Pippin backhoe kit assembling the kit, and installing it on the customers tractor. Now a digger could be driven to a job site used and then driven to the next job. This would lead to Dad acquiring a tractor dealership, to supply tractors to install backhoe kits on.  The tractor dealership wer would acquire was International Harvester Industrial Tractors. With International Harvester industrial equipment Dad had a full line of construction equipment from garden tractors to bulldozers.

The tractors and construction equipment necessitated a move out of my Grandfather’s garage.  In 1955 Dad would purchase 3 acres at the intersection of Linden St and Macada Rd in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and move the business ½ mile South of my Grandfather’s garage. The building was built mostly for lawn equipment business, however the showroom floor was reinforced enough to hold the weight of a bulldozer.
As the businesses first decade was coming to an end the business was still evolving, however it seemed to be on a solid foundation.  From a starting point of a chain saw in the back of a Jeep, to the 44 x 48’ building the business was a success.  




My Father hadn't yet hired a full time employee, as extra help needed, it would be provided by my Mother, my Grandfather or Friends.  Every Friday Mom would drive a truck to Philadelphia with a check to purchase replacements for the mowers that had been sold during the week.  Dad would schedule deliveries and service calls for evenings so he could operate the store during the day.  This was truly Mom and Pop.  

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