GALION — The Galion connection between H.D. Lee and the Lee Overalls Co. is a direct one. Here is the story.
Henry David Lee was born December 1849, in Vermont. When he was 13 years old, the family moved to Galion, and Lee began working as a clerk in a local hotel; the exact one
is not known.
During his three years of employment, he was able to save $1,200. He invested in real estate and liveries in Galion as well as in the Galion area. He became increasingly wealthy. In Galion at that time was a wholesale distributor of ker0sene named the Central Oil Co., and Lee eventually was able to purchase that company.
The date is not recorded in any of my references, but during his Galion years he married Emma Colborn. The marriage was annulled a short time later and Lee never remarried.
Because of increasingly poor health (he had tuberculosis), he sold half of his oil firm to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. in 1886, but stayed as the Galion manager here for yet another two years. Further health problems caused him to sell his remaining shares during that time.
Records indicate he went to Salina, Kansas, overcoming the objections of both his physician and his attorney. He took along several of his business associates, including Daniel Webster Cowden, the son of Colonel Cowden, whose story was concluded last week.
The state of Kansas gave him a five-year charter on Dec. 26, 1889, to establish the H.D. Lee Mercantile. This was a wholesale grocery usiness that “… marketed high-quality food under an assortment of rivate labels.” The business was capitalized for $100,000 and the company was incorporated in 1894.
Lee’s corporation was the only major food distributor between Kansas City and Denver and “… established a niche in the rapidly expanding Midwest, where the days of the Wild West were just drawing to a ose,” reported the Lee corporation history.
He started three other companies in Salina — the H.D. Lee Flour Mills Co., the Lee Hardware Co. and the Kansas Ice and Storage. Within 10 years the company, was the “dominant wholesale grocer and jobber in the Midwest.” By then Lee had expanded into other enterprises such as notions, furnishings, stattionery, and school supplies.
He had an inventory totaling $450,000 and a $125,000 plant, but a disastrous fire destroyed everything on Dec. 4, 1903. Lee was undaunted and quickly built two large fireproof buildings and continued his expansion. He was con sidered Salina’s most prominent citizen “… whose name is on every mouth and whose goods are on every shelf,” according to the company history.
By 1911, he was having trouble keeping supplies coming to him and was reportedly angered at unreliable suppliers, particularly the shortage of workwear items including overalls and dungarees. So he decided to build his own garment factory there in Salina. It was a good decision, for just at that time the expansion and growth of the United States was occurring at a rapid pace. Then came a fortunate opportunity. This event is told in the company’s history.
“He suggested that his firm develop a one-piece workwear garment that could be slipped on over his chauffeur’s uniform when he was underneath the automobile or changing a tire, but would also serve as an ideal outfit for farm and factory workers wanting to keep debris from getting between their clothes and their skin. Lee employees sewed a jacket and a pair of dungarees together and the Lee Union-All was born.”
The new outfits were so immediately popular and useful that the company’s charter was amended to include manufacturing and a second garment factory was opened in Kansas City. Two more plants were opened the following year.
The company history reported that the Union-All was so practical that Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood was impressed enough to order the company to produce as many as it could for the U.S. Army, which adopted it as the official doughboy fatique during World War I.
Lee’s garment business was expanding at a colossal rate. After the war and into 1921, new plants, offices, and warehouses were opened in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Trenton, N.J.
Before the denim Lee Riders were introduced, a cowboy pant was made and pants crafted espe cially for seamen and loggers. They developed jeans with zippers, work clothes with slide fasteners, and the U-shaped saddle crotch and tailored sizing, in which rise and seat proportions were based on waist and inseam measurements.
Galion’s H.D. Lee didn’t live to see the explosive expansion of his company before and after World War II. He died of a heart attack in San Antonio, Texas, on March 15, 1928, at the age of 89. Lee denims, twills, and work clothes continue to be manufactured today.
How appropriate it is that Galion was once the home of this entrepreneur who made the Lee trademark known throughout the world.
My thanks to Michael Vander boegh who donated the above history to the Galion Historical Society and to Mary Court who discovered the Galion connection.
Your Historical Galion is contributed by the Galion Historical Society and features the writings of Dr. Bernard M. Mansfield and other local historians. This story was first published in the Galion Inquirer on Saturday, Feb. 19, 1994. For information about the Galion Historical Society and Museum, visit www.galionhistory.com.