By Craig Moorhead
The Caledonia Argus
Chuck Ellingson has lots of auto ads clipped from old newspapers. Some date from the time he started as a new car sales manager in Fargo, North Dakota, over 50 years ago.
The oldest of four brothers, Chuck grew up in Spring Grove, just a few miles down the road from the Caledonia dealership he’s owned for decades. He was working at Dayton’s Department Store in Minneapolis when he heard of the sales job in Fargo. It was a big dealership, with over 100 employees. He started selling cars there in January 1969.
“When I began working up in Fargo, we were selling new Toyota models – they were stripped models with manual transmissions, no air conditioning – but they went for less than $2,000,” Ellingson said last week as he prepared for retirement.
Even muscle cars were discounted from time to time in Fargo, Ellingson noted. “We had about a dozen ‘69 Cameros, and they were selling for maybe $3,300 to $3,700, brand new. Insurance got so high on them, they weren’t selling well, so we had to sell them for that just to get rid of them.”
Then around five years after moving to the Peace Garden State, a district manager who had worked in the area where Ellingson grew up said he should inquire at an auto dealership in Caledonia. “He said I should check with Frank’s because they didn’t have any sons in the business,” Chuck recalled. “So every time I came to Spring Grove I’d come over and talk to them... Finally they (the Franks) decided that they wanted to retire...
Ellingson joined the firm and started selling cars in Caledonia on August 4, 1975. An ad from September of that year mentions that the business had a history of “50 years in the Frank family.” It also welcomed their new associate, Charles Ellingson, to the community.
“I started working, and every year I bought a little bit more of the business. It took me about six years to buy them out, (with) the shares that I bought,” Chuck said. The dealership’s name changed to Ellingson in ‘81 or ‘82.
Have there been many changes in the auto business since 1975?
“The prices have changed completely. I had a bunch of old ads... We sold brand-new cars for less than $4000. Some were less than $3000. Cars have gotten really technical now. You can’t work on them yourself, anymore. Selling has changed too. We didn’t have incentives and rebates and things like that back then. We sold a lot more new vehicles back in the 80’s and 90’s than I have recently, but I had a lot more help then, too. I had two full-time sales people...
What did you enjoy most about owning the dealership?
“Probably the people. You look forward to seeing the people and see if you can help them find what they’re looking for in a vehicle. Over the years I’ve had a couple of instances of having sold to four generations of people of the same family. We got a lot of repeat customers.
“I appreciate all the customers that I had. I really enjoyed seeing the people when they’d come in, to be able to talk to them and see what they’re looking for... I’ve had people come in here in the last month or so, who knew I was going to be leaving. I had a couple in here two weeks ago; she was adding them up and said they had bought 21 new vehicles from me. And another fellow said his family had bought over 20 vehicles, new and used. Some have been buying vehicles from me since the late 70’s.
One good customer bought numerous pickups, and got to know Chuck pretty well over the years. When he passed away, the family asked Ellingson to serve as a pall bearer. “That was sort of special,” he said.
Soon the Ellingson Motors sign will read “Sleepy Hollow Chevrolet Buick.”
“A big thing that I was looking for was to make sure that they kept the GM franchise in town,” Ellingson said. “Not everybody gets approved by General Motors, but Sleepy Hollow’s got a really good reputation. That was important to me. I’ve had people over the last couple of years that said they’d be interested in buying the dealership, but they never would have been approved by General Motors. They would have ended up just selling used cars.
“It’s so good for the town and for the people, our customers. They don’t have to drive to La Crosse or Winona to get their warranty work done, or take care of recalls on their vehicles. We’ve got such a good service department down here. People like that. Everybody is staying on. All of the employees are gonna continue working here.
“There was some waiting to try and find somebody to buy, but this worked out really well.”
What does retirement hold for Chuck Ellingson?
“It’ll be nice to have not quite so much stress, that type of thing. I’ve got a lot of stuff to go through from over the years... And a lot of stuff to work on at home. I’ll be busy for a while. I don’t have any hobbies. But I’ve got children who live a little ways away, and we’ll have time to be able visit them a little bit. I’ve got grandchildren from a few months old to about 29 years old.”