By Margaret O’Hartigan, adapted from her walking guide, “Walnut Park Revealed”.
Florence and Harriet Leach were daughters of industrialist Francis P. Leach, who had started an Oregon iron foundry in 1882. In 1907 the Leach girls — along with the rest of their family — moved into a newly built house on the southernmost edge of the brand new Walnut Park development (and in what is now Humboldt neighborhood.)
Within the year the sisters — members of the Portland Choral Society – were also singing at recitals, church services, funerals, lodge functions and society events. On December 12, 1915 they performed at a benefit for the Portland orphanage known as “The Baby Home”.
Six days later their own father died.
By July the following year the girls were well on their way to becoming vaudeville stars, performing at Portland’s Columbia Theater on a billing with a William S. Hart five-reel western. (A typical evening of vaudeville entertainment was made up of separate, unrelated acts on the same bill, and in the early years of silent movies it was common to have live acts in addition to screenings).
1917 saw the girls traveling the Keith vaudeville circuit in the East before signing with the Orpheum circuit. After the entry of the United States into The Great War, the sisters performed in a number of patriotically themed shows, including one that featured an on-stage representation of a submarine torpedoing a ship.
In later years Florence and Harriet performed at a number of disabled veterans benefits. One such benefit in 1924 included a boat trip up the Willamette River for residents of the veterans’ hospital, with the girls singing together with the Royal Rosarian Quartet.
1924 was also the year the girls’ mother died.
The sisters moved easily into the new medium of radio – in 1927, for example, their singing was broadcast over KGW Radio from 8 to 9 p.m. the evening of Friday, September 9.
Nevertheless, the women continued to tour throughout the 1920s. Even after retiring from vaudeville, Florence and Harriet continued to perform at various events — and with the coming of World War II, at war bond rallies. The sisters also opened a dress shop on the main floor of their house, which flourished well into the 1960s.
In 1956 the sisters hosted a garden party that welcomed then Oregon governor Elmo Smith; the guests ate al fresco beneath a 60-foot tall dogwood tree. That same tree was toppled by the Columbus Day storm of 1962. In a Oregonian interview published a few days after the storm, Harriet recalled: “My family built this house when Williams Avenue was a muddy road and Alberta Street hadn’t even been thought of.”
Odd as it may seem, many modern-day residents of Humboldt have a connection – albeit tenuous – to the Leach family. The foundry started by the father of the singing Leach sisters specialized in manufacturing the cast iron weights that counter balanced the upper and lower sashes of double-hung windows. So if you live in a house built before 1930 or so, chances are you have Leech Brothers Iron Works weights in your walls behind the window frame jambs.
So the next time you open a window and hear a “thunk” inside the wall, remember Florence and Harriet Leach, and think about what those few pounds of cast iron allowed them to do with their lives. From orphans and veterans to the general public, Florence and Harriet helped brighten the lives of Portlanders.