MC History Spotlight: Mason County’s John Deere dealerships

February 7, 2019

Dick Alway standing by a tractor at the dealership

1929 John Deere Model D, left, and 1930 JD Model GP, right.

MC History Spotlight: Mason County’s John Deere dealerships

MC History Spotlight is a weekly history column brought to you by Ludington Woods Living and Memory Care. Each week this column will feature a story from our county’s past.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

People who know my family, know that we are pretty loyal to John Deere. My father, Dick Alway, and my grandfather, Tom Alway, started a John Deere dealership in 1966 in Amber Township, which my dad owned until the late ‘80s. In addition, my father has restored and owns over 30 antique John Deere tractors.

While doing some research at the Mason County Historical Society’s research library, I came across an article in the March 22, 1972 edition of the Mason County Press weekly newspaper: “1972 Marks Half Century” (of John Deere dealerships in Mason County).

Before we go on, I do recognize that there certainly are other tractor brands and that Mason County certainly has had its share of a variety of great tractor dealerships. But, given that today is John Deere’s birthday (Feb. 7, 1804 – May 17, 1886), I thought we would just concentrate on the green today.

The first Jon Deere dealership in Mason County was owned by Thomas D. Smith of Scottville in 1922. T.D. Smith operated a hardware store in what is now the building that occupies the Scottville Area Senior Center, 140 S. Main St. According to local historian George C. Wilson, the building had a front portico which allowed vehicles to pull in. Next door, to the south, Smith operated a Ford dealership at 142 S. Main St. That Ford dealership later became Smith and Widmark, then just Widmark. More recently, the building has been Cox’s Sales & Service and will soon become Ray Scholtens Plumbing. Smith also one of the town’s largest houses, located on the northwest corner of State Street and Columbia Avenue.

Tom Alway, right, and Dick Alway, center, with a representative of John Deere.

Alway’s Implement Co. display at Western Michigan Fair, 1970s.

Deere & Co.’s first tractor was the Waterloo Boy, which it purchased from the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company of Waterloo, Iowa in 1918. The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company was the first company to manufacture and sell gasoline powered farm tractors. The company was created by John Froelich in 1893 and was originally named the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. Froelich invented the first practical gasoline-powered tractor, and the new company was given the opportunity to manufacture and sell the tractor Froelich designed.

That first tractor was not successful commercially, and of the four tractors built by the company only two were purchased, and were later returned to the company by unsatisfied customers. In 1895, the company was sold to John W. Miller and renamed the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company. Miller decided to stop producing tractors and instead focus on building plain gasoline engines. The company began to again manufacture tractors in 1911, but did not sell them until 1913 when 20 Waterloo Boy tractors were produced. In 1914, the company launched the Model R Waterloo Boy and sold over 8,000 before the line was discontinued in 1923. In 1916, the company introduced the Model N. Ironically, the model R and Model N both burned kerosene instead of gasoline.

Tom Alway

In 1918, Deere & Company of Moline, Ill., which had only made farm equipment, purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company for $2.1 million and continued to sell tractors under the Waterloo Boy name until 1923 when the John Deere Model D was introduced. The Model D was manufactured until 1953.

When Smith Hardware began its franchise in 1922, John Deere only sold farm implements. According to the MCP article, Beecher Kaye of Custer Township was the first Mason County farmer in Mason County to purchase a John Deere Model D from Smith Hardware. In the 1972 article, the Kaye farm had been recently sold to James Chase.

“Joe Selner, Riverton, August Ohse, Custer, and C.K. Hansen in Amber each purchased a new John Deere Model GP (general purpose) from Smith Hardware,” the article stated.

In 1930, the John Deere dealership was transferred to a new partnership, Olsen and Smedberg. Hjalmer Smedberg, one of the partners, had been a farmer in Amber Township. The dealership was located on Main Street in Custer. Olsen and Smedberg sold their first John Deere tractor to Clarence Rinebolt of Riverton Township.

Dick Alway and Bob Genson with a garden tractor wagon in the Scottville Harvest Festival parade, 1980s.

Olsen left the dealership in 1935 and it became known as H. Smedberg & Son. Smedberg was assisted by his son, Leonard, and son-in-law Art Hemmer. They built a new store on US 10 west of Custer.

In 1966, the franchise was transferred to my grandfather, Tom, and my father, Dick, who operated the dealership, Alway’s Implement Company, at our family’s poultry farm and hatchery located on Johnson Road between Amber and Stiles roads in Amber Township. My grandfather and my grandmother, Helen, had operated the farm since 1936. My dad had been discharged from the Air Force in 1965 and returned home to help his parents run the farm. For those familiar with the dealership, the original office and shop were located adjacent to the hatchery building. In 1968, the showroom and shop were moved the easterly 186-feet long building which once housed hundreds of chickens.

Tom and Rick Alway (Dick’s sons) on a John Deere 4020 at the dealership, 1960s.

In the mid-80s, Deere & Co. started expanding its lawn and garden franchises while cutting down on the agricultural franchises. The effort created a saturation in the lawn and garden market and large regional agricultural dealerships. Since closing down the dealership, Dick continued to tractor and equipment operate a repair business, which is now owned by my brother (his son), Rick. The majority of the tractors serviced at Alway’s Service Center are still John Deere, and many were purchased at the dealership.

A brief biography of John Deere, according to Wikipedia. Deere was born on Feb. 7, 1804 in Rutland, Vt. At the age of 17 he began his blacksmith apprenticeship. Eventually, he and his wife, Demarius (Lamb), made their way to Grand Detour, Ill. Deere discovered that cast iron plows were not working in the hard prairie soil. He came to the conclusion that a plow made of highly polished steal and a correctly shaped moldboard would be better able to handle the soil on the prairie.

Inside Alway’s Implement Company.

He developed the first successful cast-steel plow in 1837. By 1841, he was manufacturing 75 to 100 plows a year. In 1848, he moved the operation to Moline, Ill. where the company has based ever since. A member of the Deere family remained chairman of the company’s board of directors until the 1980s.

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