By Sterling McGinn
With the coming of the automobile in the turn of the 20th century, auto agencies or dealerships were being opened by Newberry businessmen even though cars wouldn’t be popular for another two decades.
When the first automobiles, or horseless carriages, arrived on the local scene, they were met with mixed views. Some were excited. And some were disgusted.
Many saw the new machines as vile-smelling contraptions that should be tied down when not running. Others wanted strict village ordinances governing speeds to not exceed two miles per hour.
Not only did humans despise the advent of the automobile, so did horses. Newberry’s popular horse named Kitty-Bell once refused to tow a broken-down car on its way up the hill to the Newberry State Hospital.
Though cars had been viewed as a fad that would never last, people began to realize that automobiles were the way of the future and were here to stay. Everyone wanted to own one. However, they came with a hefty price tag.
In the early 1900s, automobiles could not be afforded by the average working-class citizens. Business owners and doctors were the only people driving cars in those days, but at that period, travel was erratic at best. Roads were usually in very poor condition and weather was also a factor. The early vehicles usually stayed close to home.
One of the earliest autos in Newberry was owned by prominent area physician Dr. Henry E. Perry. A Newberry News item from 1903 noted that Dr. Perry broke his wrist while starting his car with a hand crank.
This was a common occurrence in the early years of the auto. The electric starter had not yet been invented, which meant an auto owner had to crank start the car’s engine. Miss-fires and improper handling of the cranking device could break an arm or wrist.
Newberry dentist Dr. Gregory owned an Orient Buckboard with a single-cylinder air-cooled engine. He may have been the first or second car owner in the Newberry area. His vehicle attracted much attention the first time he motored down the dirt main street of Newberry.
When Henry Ford created the popular Model T, average citizens had the chance become an auto owner. Local businessmen realized they had an opportunity to expand their scope of business.
One of the first dealerships in Newberry was owned by James C. Foster, who sold Ford cars and trucks in conjunction with Foster’s Hardware. A new Model T Ford cost the buyer between $495 and $595, and when purchasing a vehicle, the buyer had to pay an amount each month before the delivery was made.
James C. Foster later transitioned to selling Buick products.
One of Newberry’s pioneer residents, Matt A. Surrell Sr., first worked with horses before becoming an early automobile dealer.
He originally owned a livery stable in Newberry and even operated the Newberry and Deer Park stage line, which carried passengers between the lumber town of Deer Park and the community of Newberry.
In 1916, Surrell started renting automobiles, but stayed in the horse business as autos were still viewed with uncertainty.
After recognizing that cars were becoming a necessity, Surrell opened a Chevrolet Agency in 1919, on Newberry Avenue, where the Community Action Agency now sits. The business continued to operate in the old livery barn.
A disastrous fire in 1921, destroyed the original building and killed three horses. Surrell was devastated, but he pressed on and rebuilt his business. A year later, Surrell’s dealership and livery was replaced by a brick garage and showroom and a dance party marked the occasion of the grand opening.
Business in the 1920s was prospering for Matt, Charles, and Harry Surrell. In 1923, Chevrolet awarded the Surrells the Mackinac County sales territory in recognition of their record salesmanship in Luce County. In 1935, Matt Surrell and Son took over the Buick sales agency from Fosters.
The economy boomed in the early 1920s, and vehicles became very popular. Dealerships offered more brands and styles.
Charlie Mundt from McMillan started an Oakland, Pontiac, and Hupmobile dealership and repair garage at the present location of Tangled Creations on Newberry Avenue.
Another dealership, the Newberry Motor Company, was operated by L. A. Wyse and W. A. Tidd. The partners constructed a brick showroom and garage on Newberry Avenue in 1929, just in time to showcase the fabulous Ford Model A, one of the most popular cars on the road at the time.
Newberry Motor Company was sold in 1934 to William Carmody, who continued to sell and service Ford products.
T. Lundstrom, a Studebaker dealer from Manistique, operated a showroom on Helen Street called Lundstrom Garage Company. Lundstrom’s Newberry branch specialized in Durant and Star Automobiles.
Popular Newberry merchant Andrew Westin operated a Dodge Brothers dealership and repair in a storefront next to his large clothing and grocery store. In 1923, Westin announced that he had taken over the agency for Overland, Willys-Knight, Hudson, and Marmon vehicles.
Many items that are standard features on modern vehicles were considered accessories in the 1920s and 1930s. Things like spare tires and temperature gauges were sold separately at the dealerships.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw more car dealers in the area.
Henry Teske and Fred Bessler started doing business in Newberry in 1945 following the end of World War II. They called their business Newberry Truck and Implement, selling a line of Pontiac and International trucks and farm machinery.
The business added Harold Rapp, Teske’s brother-in-law, as a partner and the company was called Teske-Rapp Motors. Later the business added: Buick, AMC, Jeep, Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge. Following the retirement of Harold Rapp, the car dealership became known as Teske Motors.
Local lumberman Dexter Fossitt opened an Oldsmobile dealership directly across the railroad tracks at the old Johnson farm with his son Clifford V. Fossitt in the early 1950s. Fossitt’s Garage also sold Sinclair Gasoline and Homelite chainsaws.
There were several other dealerships in the Newberry area over the years.
Newberry State Hospital employee Robert Fyvie sold SAAB cars at his home in the Hospital Location.
As automobiles evolved over the years, so did the longstanding dealerships.
William Carmody sold his Newberry Motor Company to groceryman Joseph P. Rahilly in 1950. Rahilly Motors was eventually owned by Peter D Rahilly and his family and continued to sell and service Ford vehicles for decades. The dealership and garage is now Chuck Renze Ford.
Surrell and Son remained in the Chevrolet-Cadillac sales and service business until 1954, when the longstanding establishment was sold to Raymond Knauf, a U.P. native and WWII hero, who completed 117 fighter aircraft missions. He was also known for racing snowmobiles in the I-500.
Knauf’s new venture came complete with a hearse and ambulance service for the Newberry area. When new EMT credentials were required by the State of Michigan, the ambulance service was turned over to Luce County in the early 1970s.
Henry Teske sold Teske Motors and his building on south Newberry Avenue to Raymond Knauf in 1988, and the name was changed to Knauf Motors.
After four years, Knauf Motors was sold to the present owner, Kevin Vanatta, who had come into the business as a salesman for Teske Motors.
Vanatta renamed the business Newberry Motors, a company still in operation. Newberry Motors, one of two auto dealerships still in the area – the other being Renze Ford – was rebuilt following a fire in 1998.