For 100 years, F E Welterlen Motors has given small-town customer service with a big name. The Ford dealership in Edgewood will celebrate with an open house from 4:30-7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Tom Forkenbrock has owned Welterlen Motors for more than two decades, following more than seven decades of ownership by the Welterlen family, who will travel from across the country and overseas to attend the celebration. Forkenbrock speaks fondly of the family who helped give him his start.
Forkenbrock had no desire to change the name above the business. “It had such a good following,” he said. “That name meant something.”
In classic small-town fashion, Forkenbrock grew up in a family intertwined with the Welterlens — they were neighbors and babysat him.
After about seven years of farming, Forkenbrock was looking for other opportunities, and he learned that the Welterlens were looking for a successor. He knew the banker across the street and, after several years working for Welterlen, bought the business.
Now, the second generation of Forkenbrocks are entering the family business — Tom’s son Chase Forkenbrock works in the business, and his daughter Alli worked there during college.
Welterlen Motors provides financing and insurance as well as selling vehicles, and Forkenbrock said the small-town experience can ease the hassle of car buying. “You just sit at one desk,” he said.
Forkenbrock’s desk sits in the corner of the open showroom. From his chair, he can see most of the vehicles that pass through downtown Edgewood on Highway 3.
The small-town experience can ease the dealer’s life, too. Forkenbrock said he recalls sitting at a Ford function with a large dealer who bragged up his sales volume. Forkenbrock replied that he got to take his kids to school and go home to eat dinner with his wife every night. “Which one of us has it made?” he asked.
Frank E. Welterlen started the business in 1915, passing it to his son Day Welterlen in the early 1950s. Day worked at the dealership and repair shop until the 1990s, when Forkenbrock bought the business.
Even after his “retirement,” Forkenbrock said that Day came to work every day for years, just because he wanted to. If their relationship had been different, such continued involvement could have been a challenge for Forkenbrock, but he said that he always appreciated Welterlen’s experience and insight.
The company is a treasure trove of stories that reflect 100 years of small-town Midwestern history. Forkenbrock said that Frank started Welterlen Motors with a brother who opened an implement dealership next door. The implement part of the business eventually closed, and the business consolidated into its current, remodeled location.
At first, the company didn’t have a franchise, so it bought and re-sold vehicles from a Greeley dealership. During World War II, vehicles were in such high demand and short supply that the dealership would hide the shipments that came in via rail car.
Day discouraged his customers from added features such as power windows and air conditioning, though Forkenbrock said he finally convinced Welterlen of the convenience of some amenities. In addition, he laughed, many customers brought in their vehicles to add power features over the years.
Day’s widow Donna Welterlen and son Gene Welterlen said that, as a dealer family, they always had a car to drive, though it wasn’t always the car they wanted. Donna recalls leaving her job teaching to find an old junker parked in place of the car she had driven to work. Unaware of whether or not it was “her” car, she walked home, and Day had to return to pick up the junker.
Gene now lives in Belgium and traveled home to visit family and attend the celebration. He said that the business sells service, not just cars.
“They were honest and hard working,” Donna recalls. “To get any place, you’ve got to be honest. You see so much dishonestly, and you’ve got to expect to work.”
Forkenbrock brags up his veteran staff, many of whom have also been with the company for more than 20 years. Mechanic Rex Meyer has been with Welterlen for 22 years, as has office manager Janet Kelchen. Mechanic Loras Wulfekuhle has worked for Welterlen for 27 years. Mitchel Meyers has been with the company for three years.
Forkenbrock said that he often gets problems that bigger dealerships with less-experienced mechanics can’t solve.
Forkenbrock is also proud of the business’s community involvement, including his and Chase’s service with the Edgewood Chamber of Commerce and participation in Drive 4 UR School, through which about $65,000 has been donated to the Edgewood-Colesburg schools.
Many of his customers are Edgewood-area locals, but he said the challenge is getting people to come from outside Edgewood.
As a franchisee, he said all dealerships pay the same price for new cars. He added that, after pressuring small dealerships to close in the ‘90s, Ford has realized that its small dealers are a competitive strength over other companies that have ignored or closed small franchises.
“I don’t need to sell you a warranty,” he said. “You have a problem, you come back, and we’ll take care of it.” He said he’ll also order cars for return customers without a down payment, and he’s never had a customer back out of the sale.
Welterlen also sells used vehicles. Forkenbrock recalls the day he managed to sell a challenging used vehicle that Day thought would never move.
In true small-town fashion, they closed up the shop at 2 p.m. and went out to celebrate with ice cream.