A Life of Love & Adventure

The story of John and Lilla Leach is a compelling one—involving early Oregon history, botany, business, civic involvement, a lively personal history, and an inspiring love story. John’s spirited courtship of Lilla resulted in their unusual wedding, followed by their intrepid adventures together in the mountains, Lilla's distinguished career in botany, and John’s career as a pharmacist and civic leader. The garden is a testament to their extraordinary lives, and the Manor House at the heart of the garden remains essentially unchanged from when it was built in 1936. 

Early Years

John and Lilla met while both were attending the Forest Grove Academy (now Pacific University) following their primary school education. John went on to pursue his education at the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) and Lilla, who had a lifelong interest in plants, studied botany at the University of Oregon. After graduating, Lilla taught botany at Eugene High School, while John went off to experience a variety of jobs in Tonopah, Nevada, before returning to Oregon and finding his niche as a pharmacist.
John & Lilla wedding image

Courtship & Marriage

John courted Lilla by telling her that he could take her places “no cake eating botanists would go,” and on Sept 13, 1913, at 12:13 pm, with 13 in the wedding party, John & Lilla were married in an outdoor ceremony near the Pudding River in Aurora.  (John claimed he was “too wild to be in a church.") During these early years of marriage and while establishing a drugstore business, John and Lilla became members of the Mazamas and took part in many of the organization’s activities. They also went on summer botanizing trips in the Olympic, Wallowa, and Siskiyou Mountains.
"I'll take you places no cake eating botanists would go!"

The Botanizing Years

John and Lilla spent many summers on botanizing trips in the Olympic, Wallowa, and Siskiyou Mountains. They had a particular interest in the Curry County wilderness area in SW Oregon, and along with their trusty donkeys, Pansy and Violet, went on a number of very rugged, remote botanical explorations there.
It was during these Curry County expeditions that Lilla took note of five plant species previously unknown to western science. She received the American award for botany in recognition of her accomplishments, and in 1950 she was the first recipient of the Eloise Payne Luquer bronze medal awarded by the Garden Clubs of America.
Lilla Leach at Horsesign Butte, May 1931.
Courtesy The Leach Collection, Univ. of Oregon Knight Lib., Archives and Spec. Coll.
Lilla Leach at Horsesign Butte, May 1931. Courtesy of The Leach Collection, Univ. of Oregon Knight Lib., Archives & Spec. Coll.

Kalmiopsis Leachiana

Kalmiopsis leachiana
Lilla’s finding of Kalmiopsis leachiana, a rare plant that grows only in the serpentine soils of the Siskiyous, was instrumental in the Forest Service’s 1962 decision to create a wilderness area over much of the Curry County wilderness explored by the Leaches. The botanical preserve initially called “The Big Craggies Botanical Area'' is now known as the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

Phoenix Pharmacy

Illustration of the Phoenix Pharmacy building
John became a successful and innovative drugstore owner and was a very civic-minded person. He was involved with various SE Portland development projects, including the paving of Foster Road, and he was active in the SE Chamber of Commerce. He was a prominent supporter of the Boy Scouts and the YMCA. In the 1960s he received the Bowl of Hygeia award recognizing his work with the Retail Druggists’ Association. The Phoenix Pharmacy building at SE 67th and Foster Road still stands and is currently owned by Foster the Phoenix, an organization dedicated to rescuing the building from demise.

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow sign
John and Lilla acquired the original 4.17 acre property on Johnson Creek in the early 1930s, and first had the stone cabin built on the south side of the creek. It is a charming, storybook cottage, with a terrazzo floor installed as a 50 year anniversary gift from John to Lilla. The slate used for the roof was left over from the construction of the Reed College library. The Leaches spent time in the cabin as a getaway from city life until they moved into their newly-built home on the north side of the creek in 1936. Landscaping and planting of the property they called “Sleepy Hollow” then began in earnest. Wilbert Davies, later a successful California landscape architect, began work on the landscape design and implementation, with significant contributions from John Leach. The two of them did a lot of the stonework still seen in the historic garden.

Johnson Creek

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 crossed the plains in 1846 and claimed property in outer SE Portland. Johnson and his sons each received a donation land claim. William’s land claim extended from present-day Springwater Corridor to about SE 110th. Jacob’s land claim (east of 112th) extended as far as present-day SE134th/Deardorff Rd, and the Leach property sits on part of it. Both claims extended up Mt Scott. William’s claim extended uphill towards the original Lincoln Memorial Cemetery on Mt. Scott Boulevard. Son Ezra’s property was smaller and northeast of Jacob’s at roughly SE 136th Ave. north of Holgate Blvd. Jacob Johnson ran a sawmill on the creek because there was great demand for lumber as Portland was beginning to grow. Jacob wanted an education and it is said 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.)

Later Years

Lilla at her desk in the Manor House
John and Lilla lived in their beloved “Sleepy Hollow” until John passed away in 1972. Lilla’s mobility had become severely impaired by arthritis and John provided loving care for her with help from neighbors, friends, and former drugstore employees. After John’s death, Lilla was 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 donkeys, Pansy and Violet.

Bequest to Portland Parks

Portland Parks & Recreation logo
John and Lilla specifically stated in their wills that their home and property be given to the City of Portland to be developed as a botanical park and museum. However, if the City had not taken action within 10 years, the property was to be signed over to the YMCA. In the early 1980s the YMCA contacted the City and began to pursue their potential acquisition. A grassroots organization, Leach Garden Friends, was formed by concerned friends and neighbors and they urged the city to save the property.  At that time, Charles Jordan, was the newly elected Commissioner of Parks. While a great many people had pleaded to save the garden, the decision to sign over the property was about to be made, and Commissioner Charles Jordan was about to sign the release document. However, at the last minute he said, “I think I should go look at the property before signing off on it.”  After seeing it, he reported that it was a “little jewel” and “we can’t let it go.” Thanks to John and Lilla, to the quickly formed Leach Garden Friends, and to the foresight of Commissioner Jordan, we have the lovely garden that now encompasses almost 17 acres, including many new features for visitors to enjoy, while retaining the historic Leach property and honoring the enduring story of John and Lilla.
Lilla with her mule
Land Acknowledgement: The Leaches “ownership” of the Johnson Creek property was only possible due to the forced removal of the native people who inhabited the area for the last 11,000 years. 
Sources Include: 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