Main Motor in Anoka has been selling Chevy vehicles almost as long as the Chevrolet brand has existed.
Now located up the road from its original downtown site, the dealership is still family owned. It celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Owner Lee Carlson, the son of the co-founder, has been involved with the dealership his whole life.
“I’ve been on the payroll here 75 years,” he said. “I started out pumping gas and sweeping floors at 10.”
Carlson said his father, LeRoy, was stationed in the South during World War I, and when the war ended, LeRoy began selling typewriters for L.C. Smith in Atlanta.
LeRoy’s uncle, who was “quite an entrepreneur from Iowa,” convinced LeRoy to invest in a starch factory on the Rum River in Anoka, Lee said.
So LeRoy moved north, but the factory didn’t succeed.
“It didn’t take long for them to go almost bankrupt, because the big groups out East started lowering the price of starch and drove everybody out of business,” Lee said.
In May 1919 LeRoy and his uncle put together what money they had left and bought a Dodge dealership in downtown Anoka, at 222 E. Main St., Lee said.
They renamed it Main Motor Sales Co. and sold Chevrolet cars along with “Dodge Bros. Motor Cars,” according to a 1919 ad in the Anoka County Union. That was just eight years after Chevrolet incorporated as a company; it had only become part of GM in 1918.
Eventually LeRoy bought out his uncle’s share of Main Motor.
Over the years the business faced many bumps in the road.
During World War II, the car manufacturers turned to supplying the war effort, so dealers didn’t have new cars to sell, according to Lee. So Main Motor purchased the property across the Rum River where it now sits, at 435 W. Main St., and began selling farm machinery. Eventually the farm store moved to Osseo and the family sold it, but the car dealership continued to operate downtown and in the new location.
Lee’s brother came into the business in the early 1950s. Lee joined in ‘58 after a stint in the Army, and they took over running the place for their father.
Lee bought out his brother and became sole owner of the business around 1980.
About a decade ago Lee’s wife, Karen, started working at the dealership with him, and he decided to hand her the reins. Today she manages the place. Their sons are no longer involved at Main Motor, but they’re still in the auto business; they own Carlson Toyota in Coon Rapids.
Much has changed in the auto industry over the years, Lee said, and dealerships like his are becoming an anomaly as more consolidation takes place.
“Everyone is buying up everyone else,” he said. “The old, family-run operations are slowly evaporating.”
Given his age, Lee said, selling the business is on the table, but he’s also proud of the 100 years Main Motor has spent as a family-owned operation.
In that time there have been many repeat customers.
“I would like to thank all the loyal customers and friends over the years for continuing to help us have a good reputation,” Karen said.
As a staple in the community, the dealership has also employed a number of long-term associates, including Al Zopfi, a late employee who worked there 59 years.
Lee still has the key Zopfi used to open the downtown building each morning, and he has letters from customers saying thanks for times Zopfi went the extra mile to help in a snow storm or other crisis.
But to Lee, that kind of service was just part of doing business.
“Back in those days it was so personal to everybody, because you knew everybody,” Lee said.
Main Motor celebrated its 100th anniversary over Memorial Day weekend with a sale and open house and a lunch for employees.