BY MARGO DRUMMOND
The writing of history depends upon the making and keeping of accurate records, the practice of which is confined to civilized peoples. —E.W. Leach
There is a saying that all politics is local. The same could be said for history given that every community has a unique and varied past. Racine is no exception. Someone who recognized the uniqueness of Racine’s history was Eugene Walter Leach. Leach spent most of his adult life researching and writing that history, the history of Racine County.
Born in Excelsior, Minn. on Sept. l5, 1857, young Leach moved to Racine with his parents when he was two years old. His mother, Deborah (White) Leach was descended from the Whites who came to America on the Mayflower. Where Eugene’s love for history came from is not clear. His formal education seems to have ended during high school. And yet he remains the most remarkable and prolific recorder of local history in this area to date.
Among his remarkable accomplishments are an index of all Common Council proceedings from 1842 onward involving 53 volumes (18 of them written in pen or pencil) covering 58,000 items of business. He organized school board proceedings over the course of 70 years. Meanwhile his weekly newspaper articles on early Racine settlers and events, some entitled, “Pioneer Days and Ways,” continued to appear as did the four books written by Leach: “The Methodist
Church and Early Racine, “ (1912), “The Racine County Militant,” “Racine Yesterday and Today,” and “An Historical Narrative” written for the occasion of the United Commercial Travelers of America Convention, held in Racine in 1920.
Leach somehow found time for all of this despite the fact that his professional career was not that of a writer. He first worked as a typesetter for the “Racine Advocate,” then as a woodworker-cabinet maker for Racine Hardware and finally as an agent for the Aetna
Life Insurance Company.
In a paper read before the Racine County Historical Society in 1940, Attorney Richard G. Harvey, Sr. described Eugene Leach as, “A young man full of pranks who enjoyed life thoroughly.” In his later years, recalled Harvey, “he was not a man of joyousness but was serious-minded and I think rarely laughed. His life for many years was a struggle and this together with his natural seriousness made life seem somewhat sad.”
Perhaps some of that sadness was brought on by the death of his first wife, Eva (Roberts) Leach whom he had met when they sang together in the First Methodist Church choir. Eva Leach’s death in 1886 left her husband with two surviving children–Ralph Elmer who died of diphtheria at the age of six and Alice Eva, described as a “bright and winsome girl who resembled her mother.” On May 18, 1892, Eugene Leach married for a second time to Katherine Eager who died in 1934, four years prior to her husband. There were no children from that union.
Despite the many not so bright spots in his own life, Eugene Leach continued to take great interest in his local community. From 1917-1919 he served as chairman of Racine’s draft board, missing only two days of work taken off to visit the troops. When the new Racine County Courthouse was completed in 1933, the Hollibard and Root designed structure included a room dedicated to local history. E.W. Leach was appointed custodian of that facility.
As the official County Historian he was paid $600 in salary with a $400 budget for equipment and supplies. In 1930, four members of the Racine community were listed in WHO’S WHO OF AMERICA. They were: former mayor and World War II Governor Walter S. Goodland, William Horlick, Jr. who had overseen the design and construction of Memorial Hall, Congressman Henry Allen Cooper who had secured federal funds for the city’s new post office, City Hall, and the Racine County Courthouse, including the local history room and the fourth inductee–Eugene Walter Leach who had convinced Congressman Cooper to retrieve from the U.S. War Department the military records and war drafts from Racine, Racine being the only one in the nation to successfully do so.
Today the names of Horlick and Goodland and even Henry Allen Cooper are more likely to be recognized than that of Eugene Leach. And yet how can those of us who love local history not help but envy him?
He had firsthand knowledge of lawyer and educator Marshall M. Strong, he walked the streets that William Horlick, Jr. travelled, and worked with Congressman Cooper. Perhaps the most meaningful measure of a person’s life is how they choose to spend their time.
Those who value local history must be ever grateful to Eugene Walter Leach for the way in which he chose to spend his.
Margo Drummond’s interest in local history began when she became involved with Preservation Racine. For 31 years, she taught high school courses on Racine History and Death and Dying, Issues of Living and Life. She wrote two books, “Blessings of Being Mortal: How a Mature Understanding of Death Can Free Us to Live Wisely and Well” and “Here’s to Your Health.”