The story of John and Lilla Leach is a compelling one—involving early Oregon history, botany, business, civic involvement, a lively personal history including letters and stories, and an inspiring love story. Who could ask for more?
Elias and Lucinda Ann Brown set out for the Oregon Territory in 1847, but Elias died en route in July 1847 and is buried near Bear Creek, Idaho. His widow, Lucinda Ann Brown, continued on to the Oregon Territory, settling near Chemeketa. It was there that her baby, Isabella, was born on January 6, 1848—one of the first pioneer children to be born in Chemeketa (now Salem). Mrs. Brown was a milliner and was married twice more—to Hiram Allen and then to George Washington Spencer.
Young Isabella, at age 18, married James Leach who had come to Oregon Territory in 1852. His family settled about 4 miles downstream from Harrisburg. It is not known just how they met, but after about 12 years of marriage, they went to Weston in Umatilla County and were engaged in farming and ranching. James Leach was later postmaster in Lexington, OR.
John was about 6 years old when his mother died, and an older sister assumed the mothering role. He describes his life as a youngster in his book “Oxbows and Bare Feet”. By his own account, he was somewhat uncertain as to choosing a career. When one of his brothers suggested that he should study to become a druggist he set out for Portland and Forest Grove Academy (now Pacific University) to pursue an education. It was there that he and Lilla Irvin first met.
Lilla Irvin’s grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. George Irvin, came across the plains in 1848 and settled near Barlow, OR. Their son, William Winfield Irvin, born in 1850, married Lydia Ann Hewitt Bauer, daughter of Elias & Anna Hewitt.
Lydia Ann’s mother, Anna Hewitt (Lilla’s maternal grandmother) had left her husband in Bethel, Missouri to come west in 1855 to the Aurora Colony, founded by Dr. William Keil. Lydia Ann gave birth to 2 daughters—Clara and Lilla—both born in Barlow, Oregon. Their mother died not long after Lilla’s birth. Their father remarried, and his second wife (also named Lydia) raised Clara and Lilla.
Lilla was educated in the Aurora school and then attended Forest Grove Academy—meeting John Leach there. He had learned that there was a high school in Forest Grove and decided to pursue further education there since there was no opportunity to do so in his home area.
The two continued their educations—John at Oregon Agricultural College (now OSU), and Lilla at University of Oregon. In 1907, after graduation from OAC, John had some interesting early working experiences in Tonopah, Nevada—before returning to Oregon and finding his niche in retail pharmacy. Lilla graduated from U of O in 1908, then taught science classes at Eugene High School and pursued her interest in botany.
On Sept 13, 1913, at 12:13 pm, with 13 in the wedding party, John & Lilla were married in an outdoor ceremony (John claimed he was “too wild to be in a church”) near the Pudding River in Aurora, and then began their life together.
John’s many Christmas letters and other writings tell of his purchase of the building on Foster Road which he named “Phoenix” because it had been said that a prior owner had burned the original pharmacy building down and it was resurrected more than once. John & Lilla lived in the Arleta area in the vicinity of SE Foster Road and 61st Ave. near their Phoenix drug-store.
During these early years of marriage and establishment of the drugstore business, John and Lilla became members of the Mazamas and took part in many of the organization’s activities: hiking, skiing and mountain-climbing. Over many summers, they undertook botanizing trips in the Olympics, Wallowas, and the wilderness areas of Curry County in southwest Oregon. They and their two burros, Pansy and Violet, had many adventures over the years.
It was during these excursions that Lilla Leach discovered five plant species previously unknown to science. For her work Lilla won the American award for botany and, in 1950, was the first recipient of the Eloise Payne Luquer bronze medal awarded by the Garden Clubs of America, John and Lilla’s botanizing trips ended about the time WW II was starting and Lilla then became a volunteer with the American Red Cross. In 1962, much of the Curry County wilderness visited by the Leaches and where Lilla discovered Kalmiopsis Leachiana, was set aside by the U.S. Forest Service as a botanical preserve named “The Big Craggies Botanical Area.”
John became a successful and innovative drugstore owner and was a very civic-minded man. It is said that he had a hand in getting Foster Road paved and in getting the Ross Island bridge and the Arleta library built. He helped found the SE Chamber of Commerce, allowed youth groups to hold meetings (Boy Scouts as well as local organizers of the YMCA) in a back room of the drugstore, and was influential in starting a successful forerunner to the Junior Rose Festival in 1932.
He was very interested in young people and in 1957 was honored by having the new YMCA on SE Foster Road named for him. He had been a staunch supporter of the YMCA and provided the land for a branch at this location. In the 1960s he received the Bowl of Hygeia award recognizing his work with the Retail Druggists’ Association.
In the early 1930s, John and Lilla acquired their property on Johnson Creek, and by 1932, had the stone cabin built on the south side of the creek. It is a charming, almost fairytale-like little house. The slate used for the roof was left over from the Reed College library construction.
During summer months, the Leaches would spend time in this beautiful setting on their historic property. In 1936 John and Lilla moved into their newly-built home on the north side of the creek and landscaping and planting of the property began in earnest. Wilbert Davies, later a successful California landscape architect, began landscaping plans for the Leaches’ property.
Johnson Creek (formerly Milwaukie Creek) was named for the Johnson family by surveyors shortly after 1850 when the Donation Land Claim Act came into being.
William Johnson and his family had crossed the plains in 1846 and spent the winter at the Whitman Mission in what is now eastern Washington. They came further west the next spring, fortunately missing the Whitman massacre which happened soon after they had left the area.
William Johnson and his sons, Jacob and Ezra, claimed property in outer SE Portland. William’s donation land claim extended from present-day SE 92nd to about SE 112th. Jacob’s land bordered it to the east as far as present-day SE 134th/Deardorff Rd, and the Leach property sits on part of it. Both claims extended up Mt Scott. William’s apparently included today’s Willamette National Cemetery land. Son Ezra’s property was smaller and northeast of Jacob’s at roughly SE 136th Ave. north of Holgate Blvd.
John wrote that Jacob Johnson ran a sawmill on the creek near here because there was great demand for lumber as Portland was beginning to be built up. The precise site of the sawmill is not clear—early Donation Land Claim Maps show a sawmill located closer to William Johnson’s property, west of SE 112th.
Jacob wanted very much to be educated and the story is told that he would tend to the mill, study as much as he could, then run via the “Indian trail” (probably close to what we know as Foster Rd) to the Willamette River, where he kept a boat to cross to the west side. Then he attended school at the Portland Academy which was located on the site of present-day Pioneer Square. There is a plaque on the wall at SW Morrison & SW Broadway which marks the location of this early Portland school.
John and Lilla lived here in their beloved “Sleepy Hollow” until John passed away in 1972. For several years Lilla’s mobility had become impaired and John provided loving care for her. He had help from neighbors, families of friends, and former drugstore employees with whom he kept in touch.
After John’s death, Lilla could not live alone at Sleepy Hollow so she moved to a care center in Lake Oswego where she resided until her death in 1980. John’s and Lilla’s ashes were later released in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness area in Curry County in southwestern Oregon—the place where they had undertaken so many of their adventurous botanizing trips with their faithful burros, Pansy and Violet.
In their wills, John and Lilla had specifically stated that their home and property was to be given to the City of Portland as a botanical park and museum. One condition was that, if the City did not take action within 10 years, the property was to belong to the YMCA. So in 1980/81 the YMCA contacted the City and began to pursue their potential acquisition. Friends and neighbors who had known the Leaches were fearful that the property would be sold and the garden lost forever. A true grass-roots organization formed – and Leach Garden Friends was born in 1981/82. Public meetings were held and the City was urged to save the property and to develop its potential. Finally, because of the great effort on the part of so many people, the point came when the final decision to retain the property had to be made by the City of Portland.
At that time, Charles Jordan was Commissioner of Parks. While a great many people – local neighbors and acquaintances, horticultural and botanical groups, nurserymen and citizens in the area, and many others who knew of Lilla’s botanical discoveries – pushed and pleaded for action, it did not look hopeful. In fact, the decision to NOT keep the property had been made, and Commissioner Jordan was about to sign the release document. However, it is said that he stated to a staff member “I’ve never been out there, so I think I should go look at the property before signing off on it.” Well – Mr. Jordan did pay a visit and it was reported that he said that it was a “little jewel” and “we can’t let it go.” Fortunately, a positive outcome ensued and “the rest is history!”
So – here we are – in John and Lilla’s beloved Sleepy Hollow – now a lovely botanical park set on historic Johnson Creek. It is to be hoped that John and Lilla’s gift to the citizens of the City of Portland will be enjoyed for many years to come by all who visit to learn or to find respite in this special place.
Oxbows and Bare Feet – by John R. Leach
The Botanist and her Muleskinner – by Golda Kirkpatrick, Charlene Holzwarth & Linda Mullens
Leach Legacy files – personal writings and Christmas letters of John & Lilla Leach
Newspaper accounts (clippings in Leach legacy files and on microfilm at OHS)
Oral history from Leach neighbors, friends and former drugstore employees
1850 Oregon Territorial census records
1850 & 1852 Donation Land Claim maps