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SD's oldest car dealership in Pierre wraps up 105th year

This photo taken Dec. 21 in Pierre shows Jim Wegner, owner of Wegner Auto Company, the oldest car dealership in the state, in his showroom. His great-grandfather Harry Wegner, a mill operator from Nebraska, traveled up the Missouri River in the early 1900s to see the newly established permanent state capital of Pierre, eventually becoming enamored with the area and beginning the family business. (AP photo)

PIERRE -- The owner of a newfangled horseless carriage in the early 20th century wouldn't recognize much about the cars now on the road. But he would still recognize the name of the family in Pierre to see for all things automotive -- Wegner.

Wegner Auto Company, the oldest car dealership in the state, may have changed with the times, but it's still the same business a mill operator from Nebraska founded more than a century ago.

Henry Wegner traveled up the Missouri River in the early 1900s to see the newly established permanent state capital of Pierre, eventually becoming enamored with the area.

In 1907 he seized on a business opportunity and founded a livery next to where a new hotel, the St. Charles, was slated to be built. Once the hotel was up and running, Wegner fixed vehicles and provided a covered area for patrons to keep the open-air wagons and horseless carriages of the time safe from the elements.

His fledgling business grew and Wegner began driving vehicles to Pierre from Minneapolis or Omaha for various distributors in order to sell them. From that sprung the Wegner dealership that would employ the next three generations of his family.

Henry's great-grandson, Jim Wegner, said the company has survived as long as it has because it has diversified and expanded to the meet the various challenges of the last century.

A log book from the 1940s sitting in the dealership's lounge gives a dramatic example. It records five Oldsmobile purchases in 1942 and then a dearth of sales for the next two and a half years as World War II disrupted automobile production by diverting steel, rubber and other goods to the war effort. The company survived by focusing on repair work and keeping the cars on the streets running, Wegner said.

The dealership has also sold tires for 80 out of its 105 years of operation, he said. In the late 1940s it branched out into the farm implement and equipment industries. The dealership sold Allis-Chalmers single round balers, which would bring in more money than any car in that era.

In 1972, seeking more space, the company moved from its original location to its current spot on Sioux Avenue. Once there, the business began slowly buying out surrounding buildings to continuing expanding, including a gas station on the corner of Sioux and Highland avenues, and a beer wholesaler where the body shop now stands.

Wegner said the company has grown beyond being just a car dealer. It's now a "transportation consultant," whose various departments -- parts, service, body shop, collision center -- support a customer as long as they own a vehicle.

"Every transportation need you have we've got here, anything you want we've got here," he said.

And although he's the fourth generation to run the dealership, Wegner said that wasn't planned by either he or his family. After college he came back to help in the parts department while the business was moving to its new facility, and wound up staying for 40 years simply because he enjoyed it.

"They didn't say 'We want you to come back' or 'You got to come back.' There's never been any pressure to do anything like that," he said

His sister, Jenny Wegner-Boocock, followed the same path, eventually coming back to Pierre after several years of working in the Black Hills. Her son, Bryan, also now works for the dealership.

Even outside of the family the company benefits from a long continuity of leadership, Wegner said.

"We got employees that have been here 30-plus years," he said, "I look back on it and its amazing. The parts manager has been here 35 years, our new car manager has been here 25 years; our used-car manager has been here 26 years. Our body shop manager has been here for 36 years; our service manager has been here for 40 years."

Additionally some of the sales staff has worked for the dealership more than 25 years. One has been selling cars in Pierre for 50 years, he said.

Looking to the future, Wegner said the company is going to stay right where it is, but has plans in the works to remodel.