This article appeared in The Encounter May/June 2015 issue.
As a boy in the late 1930s, Jerry Leahy rode with his father from their home in southeastern Nebraska to downtown Omaha’s fruit and vegetable market.
His father owned grocery stores in small Nebraska towns and needed produce to sell. Dad got his produce and Jerry got lunch. “I remember stopping at a little restaurant and having a nickel hamburger.”
Speed forward 40 years. It’s 1975 and a new store called Overland Sheepskin Co.has opened in the Old Market where young Jerry once loaded produce onto his father’s truck.
The Omaha store is the second with that name. An Overland Sheepskin store in Taos, N.M., was founded in 1973 by Jim Leahy, the son of Jerry and his wife, Marge.
Jerry’s brother, Mike Leahy, was responsible for convincing his nephew in Taos that opening a second store in Omaha was a good idea. Head coach of the Bellevue High School basketball team, Mike managed the Omaha store for one year. He called Jerry and Marge to take over in 1976.
The store sits in a former banana warehouse built almost 100 years ago. Hooks used to hang bananas with twine until they cured are still visible.
The entrance is a 26-foot high accordion door. “Back then they pushed trolleys of produce through the front,” Jerry says.
When Jerry and Marge moved to a one-room apartment behind the store almost 40 years ago, they were surrounded by vacant stores and abandoned warehouses.
Marge remembers their crude apartment. “We didn’t have a bathtub. My husband went to an auction and bought a round galvanized washtub.” They set up the improvised bathtub in the kitchen area.
As the Old Market grew, so did Overland Sheepskin. The Leahys expanded in 1984, doubling the store’s size.
The company’s office and shipping warehouse are in a four-story barn in Fairfield, Iowa, where Jerry and Marge now live. The warehouse’s central U.S. location makes shipping product ordered online and by catalog easier.
But going to the store is still favored by customers, says sales manager Jay Flint. “It’s a touch-feely business and they would rather try on than look at pictures.”
Especially when the touchy-feely items are soft fur and luxurious leather. When Jim Leahy (who is no longer involved with the company) founded Overland Sheepskin, he hand-stitched sheepskin coats, hats, mittens, and slippers. Now there are 1,500 items available.
“We sell quality items from $15 to $15,000,” says Jay. Among them are bags, belts, hats, sheepskin coats, and boots. Also, the store offers leather jackets, handbags, cowhide and sheepskin car seat covers, and more.
Eight of the 16 Overland Sheepskin stores are located in ski-resort towns in the Rocky Mountains. How does the Omaha store match up?
“We love Omaha and we think it’s one of our best stores,“ Marge says. “It’s down home and family.“
Overland Sheepskin is a family owned and operated store. Jerry and Marge’s son Roger is president. Roger’s daughters, April and Amber, are active in the company.
Jerry has another tie to Omaha. His uncle is sports legend Don Leahy, longtime athletic director at UNO and Creighton University.