Mason County’s original Ford dealers: Kobe & Smith.

February 8, 2021

View of downtown Scottville looking north from the railroad tracks about 1914-1915.

Mason County’s original Ford dealers: Kobe & Smith.

Around the County is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

The names T.D. Smith and E.E. Kobe were well known in Scottville for many years beginning in the early 20th century. Smith, who owned a stately home at 209 E. State St., served as mayor from 1913-1915. Kobe served as mayor from 1918-1920. Kobe was also one of the founders of the failed People’s State Bank of Scottville (related story here).

T.D. Smith’s original hardware store, at 140 S. Main St.

The two entrepreneurs joined forces to sell Ford automobiles. They also each owned their own businesses selling hardware, dry goods, farm implements and tractors. They were involved in their community and expanded their businesses west to Ludington. 

Edward E. Kobe was born on Feb. 2, 1864, in Tomkins County, N.Y. He was the son of Joseph (1820-1903) and Augustine (Muret, 1829-1910) Kobe, the youngest of 12 children. When he was 4-years-old the family moved to Hart where he attended school. 

Kobe worked in the lumbering woods as a camp storekeeper and conductor of a lumbering train. He came to Free Soil where he owned and operated a general store with his brother, Joseph, who was postmaster there. 

In 1891 he married Jane Mae Teeple (Oct. 5, 1873 – Feb. 9, 1954) of Free Soil. Jane was the daughter of Free Soil pioneers Ira (1849-1875) and Nancy (Darr, 1843-1873) Teeple. E.E. and Jane had two children, Marshall (1892-1976) and Joyce (Tate, 1903-1987). 

The Kobes moved to Mears and later to Hart where they, with Edward’s brother, August Kobe, operated a general store. In 1898 Edward opened Kobe’s General Store in Scottville. His first advertisement in the Scottville Enterprise was Aug. 31, 1899, listing the store as selling “dry goods, groceries, notions, provisions, of all kinds, hay and grain.”

Thomas Dale Smith was born in Flat Rock, Mich. in July 1867. Prior to moving to Scottville in 1900, Smith worked as a block man (salesman) for the McCormick-Deering Co., selling farm machinery to implement dealers. He was based out of Big Rapids and soon realized that Mason County, especially Scottville, was a place where he wanted to establish a business.

On May 22, 1893, T.D. married Emma Dell Garreston (1870-1951) in Essex, Ontario, Canada. Emma was born on Oct. 16 in Brownstown Township, Wayne County, Mich. 

T.D. and Emma had one daughter, Maxine, born on Sept. 26, 1895 (1895-1980). 

Ford trucks with tractor parts lined up outside the Ford dealership.

In January 1902 Smith purchased the hardware business owned by E.M. Briggs, which had been established in the 1890s. The business was located in the present day location of the Scottville Area Senior Center, 140 S. Main St. After selling his hardware business, Briggs established a lumber yard near the present location of Jabrocki’s Excavating in the 100 block of present day South Reinberg Avenue. In 1907, Smith moved the old buildings to the back part of the lot and built new buildings along Main Street.

The Ford Motor Company was founded on June 16, 1903 by Henry Ford in Dearborn. In 1907, E.E. Kobe began selling Ford automobiles, a year before Ford introduced the Model T, the first car to be mass-produced on a moving assembly line. Kobe’s obituary, published on Dec. 19, 1949 in the Ludington Daily News (Kobe died on Dec. 17, 1949) stated that Kobe and Frank Pierce opened the Ford dealership in 1910, contradicting the 1914 Ludington Chronicle article that stated Kobe had been in business for seven years. 

This is the only reference to Frank Pierce and his involvement in the business that I could find. It’s possible that he was a silent partner. According to the Mason County Historical Society’s publication “Mason County 1980”, Pierce and his brother, Newton, came to Ludington in 1871 and 1872 as lumber inspectors. Later they set up a broom factory in the old James Ludington store. His daughter, Mary, married Delos Filer. Pierce later was elected as Mason County clerk.

Ludington Chronicle, 1914: 

“E.E. Kobe, who has been agent for the Ford cars for the past seven years, has decided to expand and has taken T.D. Smith as partner. Mr. Smith owns the building (142 S. Main St.) which has been occupied by R. Vogel as a livery stable for several years. Mr. Vogel has vacated and the building will be fitted up with all the new devices for repairing automobiles. A mechanic has been engaged to do repair work so this firm will run a first class garage in connection with the sales business.’ 

The showroom of the Ford dealership.

A 1955 Ludington Daily News article with the headline “Smith Ford Sales in Scottville is 5th oldest Ford agency in the entire state” states that Smith began selling cars for Ford in 1912. The article calls Smith the original Ford dealer in Mason County, which contradicts earlier articles that clearly state Kobe started selling the cars first. It’s likely that Smith’s son-in-law, Thurston Widmark, may have embellished the story slightly or just got it mixed up. 

A Sept. 24, 1942 article in the Ludington Daily News talked about the earliest automobile owners in Mason County. Naturally, both Kobe and Smith were listed. 

“E.E. Kobe had a Ford touring car, a handsome machine that seated five passengers.”

“T.D. Smith, Scottville implement dealer, owned a decided novelty in the automobile line. This was an International Harvester in the buggy style of machine. The wheels and body were essentially those of the standard type of horse buggy, the former being of large diameter and shod with solid tires.”

In 1919, fire destroyed Smith’s buildings and he built new ones (which still exist). That year Smith added Fordson tractors to his line of inventory at the hardware store. In 1922, he began selling John Deere tractors as well, selling the dealership to Martin Olsen and Hjalmer Smedberg in Custer (see related article here). 

Sometime following the opening of the Scottville Ford dealership, Kobe and Smith opened a dealership in Ludington, located at 109 E. Filer St. In 1928, Kobe bought out Smith’s share of the Ludington operation and changed its name to Kobe Auto Co. Kobe’s son, Marshall, had been appointed manager of the operation in 1927 and continued in that role in 1935. Marshall then moved to Muskegon and eventually to Springvale, N.Y. 

In 1940, Henry “Hank” Mottl and A.W. Hamel, opened a Ford dealership at 116-120 W. Loomis St. (also the location of a Buick dealership). Newspaper clippings on record are not clear if Kobe had sold his business in 1935 or when exactly it closed. 

South Main Street, looking north from the railroad tracks, 1930s.

In July 1931, at age 67, Kobe sold his grocery and dry goods store. 

On Oct. 24, 1928, Thurston Widmark married Maxine Smith. Widmark was born in 1905, the son of F. Oscar and Minnie Widmark, immigrants of Sweden, who owned Widmark Lumber Co. in Ludington. 

Widmark took over the Smith operations after his father-in-law died in a car accident in 1929. Thurston and Maxine also inherited the Smith house on State Street. He closed the hardware store down in 1930. 

Widmark died on March 10, 1964 of cancer. In September of that year, the dealership closed. A scathing article in the Ludington Daily News, written by Chuck Wallace in his “Chuck’s Chatter” column read: 

“September 12 will be a black day for Scottville and all of Mason County as a matter of fact. After 52 years as a reputable Ford dealer in this area the T.D. Smith Ford Company will be no more. 

“Mrs. Widmark, whose father founded the agency in 1912 and whose husband, the late Thurston Widmark, ran the business from 1929 until this year, is being forced to close the agency. It seems the wheels of large industry turn without personal feelings for loyalty of service. 

“The Ford Motor Company pulled the agency right out from under Mrs. Widmark without giving her a reasonable period of time to put it up for sale. 

T.D. Smith warehouse No. 3

“Their action also took away the paychecks of quite a few employees. Most of them with many years of service to the Widmarks and the Ford Motor Company. From what I hear and read it looks like the Ford Company is out to  create large, supermarket type agencies on the outskirts of cities. To do this the little old downtown type agencies must go. These people must know what they are doing, but their method of achieving their goal sure doesn’t show me much.”

In reality, it’s likely the Ford Motor Co. didn’t just close the dealership without compensation. What was not mentioned Wallace’s column was that for the remainder of her life, until 1980, Maxine Smith Widmark, drove a brand new Ford Thunderbird — every other year, according to Scottville resident Bruce Claveau, who used to work for Jimmy White’s Standard Oil gas station where Maxine would have the cars serviced. Claveau said her cars were black with black and white interior.

The buildings that T.D. Smith built in 1919 continue to stand today. The hardware store building at 140 S. Main St. is now home to the Scottville Area Senior Center. The Ford dealership building at 142 S. Main St. is now home to Scholten’s Plumbing and, for over 30 years, was home to Cox’s Sales & Service. 

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South Main Street looking north, 1911, before Smith purchased the Vogel building.

 

 

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