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Old-Time Wares for a New Wartime - 2003-03-23


The fear of a terrorist attack on the United States has Americans buying duct tape and plastic sheeting. Army surplus stores have been selling emergency preparedness kits containing potassium-iodide pills and hooded suits, for protection against possible contamination by biological or chemical weapons. But, some Americans are thinking beyond the immediate threat, they are preparing to live without modern "necessities" like electricity and indoor plumbing. A hardware store in Kidron, Ohio has seen a boom in its catalog and store business from people who want non-electric goods such as kerosene lamps and 190-liter rainwater drums. Natalie Walston visited the store that typically caters to the Amish community in three neighboring states.

It's Thursday afternoon and, in Kidron, that means auction day. The streets are crowded with black, horse-drawn Amish carriages, and farmers in pickup trucks pulling livestock in long trailers.

Inside the sprawling Lehman's Hardware and Appliance store, customers shuffle through the aisles. Children play with copper cowbells as a model train chugs around an elevated track. The store is full of supplies to keep a non-electric home runningeverything from butter churns and yogurt incubators, to hurricane lanterns and wind-up flashlights.

Today, Dave Lias is shopping with his wife. They live on a mostly self-sufficient farm in Wampum, Pennsylvania, about a two-hour drive away. The couple has a grain-grinder to make their own flour. They have enough food in their storage room to last for a month. Plus, they have their own well, so they're not worried about losing connection to a municipal water supply.

Overall, Mr. Lias says, he's not worried about a terrorist attack disrupting everyday American life, because his lifestyle allows his family to live off the land if they have to. "We bought sausage stuffers here, you know where you shoot a deer or something and you get the meat and you want to grind it up at home. Um, what else do we get here? She collects kerosene lamps. She got about 75 of 'em. Maybe a hundred, I don't know. Probably got two or three of 'em sitting out at all times in case we lose electricity, just turn 'em on, and candles, whatever," he says.

Most Americans aren't as self-sufficient as the Lias' but they're starting to buy the same types of items. Lehman Hardware President Galen Lehman has seen a huge increase in his sales, and can come up with no other explanation than people are worried about what will happen during a war.

In February, people from every state in the union ordered from his catalog. But, Mr. Lehman says most of those goods were sold to customers in what could be considered high-risk target areas, such as California and New York. "The number one increase is in the area of hand-water pumps, which would enable you to get water in the case of a power failure. We're selling about 6-times more water pumps last month as we did the year before," he says. "Water filters are up substantially, too, we've seen an increase there of about 85-percent."

These new customers are also buying glass canning jars and dome lids to preserve fruits and vegetables. And they're asking how soon they can get the products and requesting rush delivery to their homes, which Mr. Lehman says is a shift from how people usually order. In February, after the Bush Administration urged Americans to buy radios and batteries, Lehman's Hardware sold more hand-cranked radios than it normally sells in a year. And it's not just civilians who are purchasing these goods.

Mr. Lehman says he's getting orders from U.S. military personnel who've been deployed overseas in advance of action against Iraq. "One fellow told us that he was cleaning his clothes by beating them on a rock. Of course they do that all over the developing world everyday, but it was his first experience with and he didn't like it much! So, we've sold a number of washboards and hand-clothes-washing equipment to the Middle East," he says.

Back in the store, DJ and Clements Estrada of Port Orchard, Washington are looking at hunting knives. They're in Ohio to visit family, and stopped at the store out of curiosity, more than anything. The couple isn't in the market for survival goods, but they say they're worried about terrorists striking the United States because they live near Seattle and its three military bases.

DJ: "And, you know, if that was going to be a target, it would be a pretty good one. You've got subs, you've got ships, and build torpedoes there."
Clements: "But if it's gonna happen it's gonna happen. I mean there's not a whole lot of steps you can take. You look at the other countries that are already at war, and, you live through it. I think we've been spoiled because we've been away from war for so long in our own country, not going out to fight."

While the U.S. military has "gone out to fight," the folks back home are getting prepared for the worst. Lehman's saw a similar rush for non-electric goods immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But interest in the store's inventory mushroomed two years earlier. That's when Americans turned to Lehman's for products to help them through Y2K and the electronic chaos the turn of the century was expected to bring. The store filled so many orders, it ran out of some supplies for the neighboring Amish, who live simply without electricity every day. But company president Galen Lehman isn't complaining he says it's a good idea for the rest of the country to live a life at least a bit less dependent on a power grid.

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