By: Kimberly Davenport ∼MRC Board Member∼
When Christmas in Montrose gets underway, Friday, December 1, through Sunday, December 3, the former site of Lee’s Furniture will house local vendors selling their wares.
It was just this past summer when two brothers, Craig and Jay Reimel, closed the doors of the nearly empty Lee’s Furniture store following a summer-long going-out-of-business sale; and it is the same business that two other brothers started more than 100 years ago in Springville, Pennsylvania before relocating to 158 Church Street in 1940, initially sharing a lease with a tractor company.
The family business was much more than a building, or a destination to shop for household appliances and furnishings. It has its own story with well-developed characters who influenced the climate of the Montrose community.
Charles Lee, known as “C.W.,” and Harold Lee (Harry) started Lee Brothers in Springville, PA, selling home furnishings and groceries. C.W. and Harry also sold milk coolers to the local farmers, often signing families up for electric in order to clinch a sale for appliances.
In January of 1940, C.W. opened a branch in downtown Montrose and moved his wife, Anna, and three children, Robert, Betty and Jane, to a home on South Main Street, near the Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church.
At that time, furniture and the newest models of washing machines – wringers–came by train to the old railroad station that was formerly located on Post Street in Montrose where the Hinds Oil company is now located.
C.W. was an aggressive salesman, once selling his own sofa right out from under his wife who was literally sitting on it at the time. He was also a proponent of hard work, often telling family members, “It is better to wear out the soles of your feet than the bottoms of your pants.”
It was C.W.’s work ethic that set the tone for the family when in 1945, C.W.’s son, Robert (Bob) Lee, and his son-in-law, Frank Reimel, returned from World War II and joined the family business. The men changed the business name to Lee’s Furniture and began marketing themselves to other returning service men who were marrying and starting families and, as a result, needed home furnishings, flooring and appliances. While Bob sold goods and took orders for flooring from customers in the store, Frank delivered furniture and appliances to those customers and installed their flooring. In the process, both men forged enduring relationships with members of the community.
Like his father before him, Bob was a true entrepreneur. He started a successful furniture club, which drew customers in most Friday evenings to put down weekly payments toward future purchases.
Both Bob and Frank saw the business as an evolving proposition. The men set a goal, on which they followed through, to remodel or expand the site every five years. Every summer, they increased the rotation of housewares through an annual tent sale, a tradition started by C.W. Under their management the store building went from its original shared, leased space of 1000 square feet to a family-owned, remodeled show room of 10,000 square feet for the latest appliances and furniture, with an additional 5,000 square feet for warehousing.
Bob and Frank ran the business as a team through the 1980s until Frank’s son, Jay Reimel, returned from college and became part of the mix. Both Jay and Larry Lee, Bob’s son, became partners in the store, and in 1985, Jay’s brother, Craig Reimel, joined the business, too. At some point Larry retired from the store to run his own cabinetry business, while Jay took on the role of salesman, and Craig, with a background in computers and sales, worked the technical side. In 2003, Craig oversaw the opening of a RadioShack sales center on-site.
The family’s values for hard work and community service were recognized and celebrated by the Montrose community in 1994 when Frank and his wife Betty were named Citizens of the Year. Their business acumen, as well as their acts of kindness and overall friendliness, became symbolic of the Lee’s Furniture family, and throughout the years other family members were also honored: Bob was Citizen of the Year in 1998; Jay was Citizen of the Year in 2000; and Craig was Citizen of the Year in 2015.
In addition, C.W., Frank, and Bob were all named Paul Harris Fellows by the local Rotary for their contributions to family, church, business community, and industrial development.
Other family members that worked at the store include Betty, who helped with decorating and waiting on customers; Bob’s daughter, Karen Leonard, who served as chief decorator for 30 years; Frank and Betty’s daughter-in-law Joann Reimel, who Jay says did a little of everthing, and Craig’s wife, Debbie, who spent the last ten years as the store’s chief bookkeeper. Jay’s wife Lois also worked at the store for a time as a representative for Xerox.
In addition to family, Carol Stankiewicz, Carol Brown and Marty Demmer were an integral part of the store; Carol Stankiewicz served as bookkeeper before Debbie, and Carol Brown and Marty were sales clerks (although they both did a variety of jobs). In the warehouse, Ed Frystak was the chief for 27 years until Reggie Barnard took over the job.
As the store was getting ready to close, Debby Holbrook and Cass Kwan worked in the furnishings department, and Greg Sherman, Judd Holbrook, Ron Leonard and Shelby Riker worked in the RadioShack section.
For Jay and Craig the closing of Lee’s Furniture was bittersweet. Although they were both ready to retire, they say that they leave behind many memories.
As teens, all of the Reimel brothers worked at the store, including older brother Alan and younger brother Phil, as did their cousin Larry.
Jay says: “In the summers we put lawn furniture together, in the winter we fed the coal stove, and we all had to empty buckets of water from the dehumidifier. In addition, every Thanksgiving was spent collecting greenery for the large wreathes that covered the store’s façade for Christmas, and we helped decorate the store. We did this all day and then had Thanksgiving dinner, usually at Bob’s house. Aunt Addie (Bob’s wife) would be cooking while my dad made 15′ wreathes and everyone else decorated.”
For Jay and Craig working together was a total partnership.
“It was like a marriage. We both had our strengths. Jay was a tremendous salesman and merchandiser,” says Craig.
Of Craig, Jay says: “He held us together with his computer and technology skills, and running RadioShack.”
While Jay plans on spending the majority of each year in Florida, Craig says he and his wife, Deb, will remain in Montrose.
No matter where the brothers are though, the Lee-Reimel family will be forever inter-woven into the fiber of Montrose’s history, as Lee’s Furniture was around long enough to become symbolic of the people who once worked there. The building, its brick and mortar seemingly metamorphosed into a body with a soul of its own, is a reminder of interactions with the people who once dominated the space and contributed to what is now Montrose.
Related Post: Christmas–Montrose Style