I recently came across an April 1985 newspaper clipping written by former Press-Chronicle business editor, Mary Alice Basconi. It concerned an early business in Johnson City – Leach Motor Co.
The endeavor started when Paris Leach went into business for himself in 1911, with one of the first garages in Johnson City to service gasoline engines. He later sold cars, such as the Hupmobile, from a building at 415 W. Market Street.
A 1944 City Directory lists Leach as an “automobile repairer” at 111 Ashe Street, the site of the family's “old home place.” The location, developed in 1931, became his business home. A 1948 directory shows him as the owner of Leach Motor Co.
Paris's legacy to sons Kyle and Harold was his business that withstood years of capricious trends in the automotive industry. Later, he wisely steered his trade along sales of a timeless product: the Jeep, known cleverly as “the ubiquitous World War II four-wheeled personification of Yankee ingenuity and cocky, can-do determination.”
Kyle and Harold Leach with Their Parents' Photos on the Wall Behind Them
“When we went into it,” Harold said, “it was the first 4-wheel drive vehicle for civilian use. Jeeps don't look much different today, although other manufacturers produce vehicles of the same style now.”
Harold recalled that customers came from North Carolina, Virginia and throughout Northeast Tennessee, which included sportsmen, fishermen and farmers along with people who resided in “the real, real rough country.”
“One fellow who owned a farm,” he said, “took one of our little Jeeps, put a plow on it and used it as a tractor.” Others took advantage of the recreational virtues of a Jeep. Leach Motors even sponsored a club, the “The East Tennessee 4-Wheelers,” for Jeep devotees who liked to explore wild mountain trails.
According to Harold, “We went everywhere from Tellico Plains, the Erwin mountains, Elizabethton, places where you could hardly walk. We'd circle the Jeeps up like a wagon train and have lunch. Those were fun times.”
In 1945, Kyle related to his father that, “I don't want to work for you, but I'd go into business with you someday.” Paris Leach told his son to knock out a wall in the building and add an equal addition to it. Kyle did as instructed.
For many years, the business had no hydraulic lift. To service vehicles, they drove a car over a pit and worked from below. Kyle said with progress the old pot-bellied stove was finally done away with and the pits were replaced with hydraulic units.
With the passing of the years, the Leach brothers, who grew up and labored in their father's shop, began looking forward to retirement. Leach Motor Co.'s turquoise-blue buildings on Ashe Street were sadly put up for sale or rent.
1960 Ad from the Science Hill High School Wataugan
In 1983, the brothers sold their Jeep franchise to another car dealer and piece by piece began selling off equipment and parts, even shelves. In March 1985, Kyle sold two of his father's first purchases for the company: an old vice and a mechanical hoist from the pre-hydraulic age.
“I think that had we not been at retirement age, the business would have held on,” added Harold. He noted that his days would soon be filled with fishing, golf, square-dancing and travel.
The brothers mentioned one loyal nameless employee who had been with the firm since 1946, even through the dismantling of the operation. “He's sort of like an old horse,” Harold said in a flattering manner. “After you work him for so long, you take the bridle off and he still goes into the stable.”
In early March of 1985, the brothers wrapped up their work by answering calls from would-be renters or buyers and watching old equipment being hauled away. Remaining in the family were portraits of their parents and a wall full of pictures from “The East Tennessee 4-Wheelers” past expeditions.
Harold recalled those monthly trips and how Jeep men from Cincinnati even came down once to attend the events. Harold's concluding words to Basconi were “Leach meant Jeep. It really, really did.”