Marchant Motors closes after nearly a century of service to community


GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Harlan Marchant stands at the parts counter of Marchant Motors in Spring Valley, which closed permanently on Jan. 31 after 96 years in business.
By: 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“My father started here way back in…I’d say 1924, so 96 years,” recounted Harlan Marchant, telling about how his father, Al, opened Marchant Motors in downtown Spring Valley nearly a century ago, an era that saw Spring Valley polka-dotted with little car repair shops and gas stations, places to shop and find entertainment.   

Al Marchant arrived in Spring Valley from his hometown of Canton as a young man in search of enterprise, finding it in a little building on the east side of what is now the existing Marchant’s property. 

“He worked in Canton for a few years after he left home, and it must’ve been ’24 that he came to Spring Valley and started his own business. He started in just a little shed on the east side…repairing batteries, selling batteries, repaired radiators. It mushroomed out from there to another building,” Harlan said. 

“Farmers in the ‘20s didn’t drive their cars in the winter. I can remember when I was a kid and we first started in a little kind of shack that had benches in the back of the building, and the farmers used to take the batteries out of their tractors in the wintertime, didn’t drive them, so there’d be rows of batteries trickle-charging all winter.  He just expanded business from there,” he said.

His father got involved with Chrysler in 1930. At that time, there were several associate dealers who worked directly with a Chrysler distributor in La Crosse. In 1936, Chrysler offered direct dealerships, so Spring Valley had a direct dealership from that point on until 2009 when Marchant’s contract got canceled. During the recession, a lot of Chrysler and GM dealers got canceled because the government made a deal that if some of the dealerships, mostly in smaller towns, got canceled, Chrysler and GM didn’t have to file bankruptcy, noted Marchant. 

“I don’t know if Dad went to vo-tech school – these guys were self-made.  From that point on in 1936, he continued to work hard and expand. It was probably new and used cars from 1936 on,” he said.  “In 1946, Lundby’s built that building up on the highway (GM dealership) that Roger Zeimetz bought, but in 1947, Spring Valley was a bustling little town.  On the main street, there was no opening downtown – there were two jewelry stores, two grocery stores, a Ben Franklin, a dry goods store, everything was filled – and his idea was that if he built here, he’d be close to the business district. People brought their cars here and went uptown to shop. There was a lot to do here because there were also two theaters. And there was no zoning.” 

That’s how Marchant Motors came to be the building that is a bridge. Al saw the opportunity to expand his business in a unique location that best served his community, and he put a foundation into the riverbanks to construct the place where his son grew up to work most of his career. 

Harlan worked there off and on between the time he was in high school and between the times he went to college.  He came back after he went into the service. He came back full-time in 1966, selling cars. 

“We’ve been here ever since. Dad lived to be 96, and he died in 1996. He drove almost up to the time he died,” he said.

Changes in automotive mechanics were a driver in how the dealership and its repair shop evolved and were also part of the reason Marchant chose now, when he’s six years shy of his father’s 96, to retire. 

“Cars have changed so much…there are computers involved now. It just mushroomed over the years,” he said.

The most unusual cars that Harlan has ever sold were “probably the Prowler and then the Dodge Viper, because they’re performance cars.” He added, “There’ve been a lot of good cars over the years…the power cars like Roadrunners and Dodge Super-Bs, the sister car to the Plymouth Roadrunner.  Plymouth ended production in 1999, so the Prowler we have was a 1999 that we’ve only used in parades, and they built it for a couple of years after that as Chryslers.”

Reliable employees have made the difference for Al and Harlan and their family enterprise, as Harlan listed that Scott Fingerson has been the shop’s parts man, and Jim McCabe and Lee Rentschler worked in the garage. 

“We’ve had some good people over the years who’ve worked for us. We’ve had some good employees who’ve given us longevity – some stayed 20 years, some stayed longer,” Harlan said. “I don’t know what we will do with the building, but Scott will stay until the stuff is all hauled out, the cars sold. He’ll help get the building cleaned out.  It’s a lot of work, but we’ll get it done.” 

The Marchant’s building has weathered flooding throughout the time it’s been located as the bridge building, but Harlan recounted that his father dealt with the 1940s flooding well enough and that he himself spent time cleaning up after the river underneath got presumptuous and invited itself in, thankful once more for the dedication of employees who dropped everything and did what was necessary to save the business. 

“We’ve got gates for the doors, we’ve got our own sandbags. When the water did get in here, we mopped and cleaned pretty fast,” he said. “But the one in 2000, Jim came down here and he just threw the doors open and ran.  The firemen helped move the cars, and water filled the basement.  Hopefully nobody will see that again.”

Harlan was “just going to close” the shop quietly and retire, placing a notice in the Tribune about his intentions, but it didn’t work out that way because others felt that his going home to rattle around the house and be in his wife, Turby’s, way, without a proper sendoff wouldn’t be right. 

“I have no hobbies, so I’ll take it as it comes. I always said I just wanted to get on a white horse and ride off into the sky, but it (closing) was a different feeling. It’s been a long time,” he said. “We were able to survive and serve the community, take care of folks in the manner that they wanted to be taken care of, and that’s what made the business go. Obviously, I’ll miss the people. They weren’t only customers, but they were friends. It was always nice to do business with them and take care of their needs.”

Comments

All best wishes to Harlan and Turby, two great people!

What a wonderful story! Best wishes to Harlan and Turby. Old Frank Barth would be proud. Great business that will be missed.