There was a time, about 40 or 50 years ago, when most every rural city or town, and even a good many crossroads communities, had a tractor dealership or two or maybe even three or four.
For sure there would be one of the big names: John Deere, International Harvester or Allis Chalmers. The bigger towns might have all three brands competing for the farmer's business.
Then there were the other dealers scattered across the countryside marketing dozens of other tractors, among them Oliver, Minneapolis Moline, Case, Ford and any one of a dozen other makes that came and went.
The mid 20th century saw rapid expansion of farm mechanization and spirited competition among the full-line farm equipment dealerships and many farmers identified with a particular brand of equipment by color with the big three dominating: IH - red; Deere - green and Allis - orange. (Other brands promoted their names or features.)
Farm equipment dealerships were generally family owned, often the result of expansion of a blacksmith shop or hardware store that had added wagons, corn planters and other horse drawn equipment, then moved into tractors.
Kalscheur Implement at Cross Plains can look back 102 years and marvel at how decisions made so long ago resulted in what remains today as one of Wisconsin's 43 Case IH dealerships.
It began with Fred Schwoerer, a Cross Plains entrepreneur, who opened a hardware store in the small town west of Madison in 1910. He saw a potential in selling horse harnesses and small farm tools and implements.
The store was sold a number of times over the next several decades with Ford cars added in 1916. The Bower family assumed ownership in 1917 and proceeded to add an elevator and feed store.
In 1940, cousins Herman and John Kalscheur and his son Gene bought the implement line (International Harvester) from Bower Brothers and in 1951 the Kalscheur Implement name was first used.
Although a number of stockholders came and went over the years, Gene Kalscheur remained president until 1973. He died childless in 1973 and was the last of the family to be involved in the business, but the name continues today.
Richard Zwettler, a farm boy from nearby Pine Bluff, began working at Kalscheur Implement in 1965 as a "go-for," became a stockholder in 1980, president in 1990 and retired in 2011. He was succeeded by current president Glen Wipperfurth.
Looking back, Zwettler says it's interesting that the ownership of Kalscheur Implement has remained with key employees ever since 1940.
"Mr. Kalscheur wanted it that way," he says. "And, I'm the first president that ever actually retired, my predecessors all died before retiring."
"Even though we are a one store dealership, we had actually expanded to a second store (in Spring Green) in 1959," Zwettler says. "It closed in 1963; I guess we were ahead of the times."
He also remembers the 1970s as the heyday of the farm equipment business.
"All the farmers were expanding and buying new and more modern equipment," he remembers. "We had 40 employees, the highest number ever."
Zwettler remembers that Kalscheur Implement installed their first computer in 1986. "That was a great move ahead for parts management and sales."
Glen Wipperfurth is a Lodi native and still lives there. He admits to growing up with an interest in mechanical things. "I always loved to fix things around home," he says. "I wanted to see how they worked."
After graduating from Madison Area Technical College (MATC), Wipperfurth got a job at Kalscheur Implement (in February 1991) working in the parts department. Both he and Richard Zwettler remember that when Zwettler asked, during the initial interview, what he saw in his future, Glen answered "to run a business."
That goal came into being when he became a stockholder and was elected president of Kalscheur Implement in November 2011. Other stockholders, all of which are employees and department managers, include Charles Haack (parts), Jerry Schwartz (service) and Mark Dohm (service and over the road).
Currently there are 22 employees at Kalscheur Implement that serves customers primarily in Dane, Sauk, Richland and Iowa counties - although that is changing according to Wipperfurth.
"The advent of computers and the internet has changed people's buying habits in consumer goods," he says. "That includes the farm implement business. I'd say that 75 percent of the people who walk through our doors have done some research on the internet. "
Wipperfurth cites a farmer from Ohio who recently came to Kalscheur Implement to pick up a spindle and wheel for a manure spreader. "He couldn't find what he needed, we had it and he bought it," he says. "It's also true that the younger farmers taking over farm management grew up with computers and are using them."
He also sees the farm equipment industry in a growth mode as record grain prices have encouraged farmers to update and replace their machinery.
What about the trend to consolidation of farm equipment dealerships that is taking place? Note: the biggest dealer in Wisconsin is Riesterer & Schnell, at Chilton, with 12 locations followed by Tractor Central at Eau Claire with 10 sites.
"We feel that there is still an important place for the single, stand-alone business," Wipperfurth says. "We feel we offer customer service, efficiency and the products people want. Merging dealerships can also mean another layer of management that customers must deal with."
There are 150 full-service farm equipment dealerships in Wisconsin, according to Gary Manke, executive vice president/CEO of the Madison-based Midwest Equipment Dealers Association. "There is a continued merger of dealerships," he says. "Farms are getting bigger meaning fewer potential customers. "
The two biggest farm equipment dealers in the U.S. are Titan Machinery (Case IH and New Holland) with about a hundred locations and RDO (John Deere) with 60 stores. Both are headquartered at Fargo, ND.
Kalscheur Implement has an interesting ownership history: Since the Kalscheur family owned the dealership (from 1940-73) the stock has always remained with key employees who elect their officers. Upon leaving the company, the employee-owner's stock is sold back to the company or to another key employee.
There are other single location farm equipment dealerships across Wisconsin, much family owned. Like smaller family farms, they face the question of an ultimate decision of who the next owner will be. If there are no sons, daughters or family willing and able to take ownership, merger or sale is the alternative.
Ken Wipperfurth and the other owners of Kalscheur Implement Co. Inc. feel they are prepared to make their company's long history a lot longer.
My column of Feb. 1, 2013, entitled, "The Glory Days of Pabst Farm Holsteins" contained a factual error that Augie Pabst me called to correct.
The column read "it (Pabst Farms) was owned by a corporation (Pabst Brewery)".
Pabst reminds me that "the well-known dairy farm at Oconomowoc was never owned by the Pabst Brewery. It was always owned by Fred Pabst Jr. and later by the Pabst family."
I thank Augie for giving me the correct story.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.