Story and photos by John Lee
Swanson Ford still operates from the building on the left in
downtown Ceresco, Nebr. A couple Model Ts and an A were
parked out front in this circa-1930 photo.
Henry Ford introduced his new Model T in October 1908 and six months later, it was the hottest-selling item in the auto industry.
April 15, 1909, was a landmark day for Magnus Swanson, the day he received his franchise as a Ford dealer in Ceresco, Nebr.
One-hundred years later, his grandson, Doug Swanson, is president and co-owner (with his 92-year-old mother) of Swanson Ford, the world’s fifth-oldest Ford dealership in continuous family ownership.
Ford Motor Co. presented its official recognition of the anniversary in May, but the real celebration was scheduled for July 10-11.
Doug invited his friend, Rob Heyen, to bring his restored 1909 Model T touring car to the dealership when Bob Bremer, Ford sales and service manager for the Kansas City region, arrived to present the bronze 100th anniversary plaque. He and Kevin Klossner, the regional parts and service manager who presented Doug with a diamond tie tack, were given a ride around town in the touring car’s button-tufted leather back seat before heading back to Kansas City.
The original, one-owner 1922 Model T truck on the right is a
regular at the annual Swanson Ford-sponsored Ceresco Days
Several other vintage Fords were parked in Ceresco’s block-and-a-half long business district for the occasion. Swanson doesn’t just sell and service new Ford products, he sponsors and is active in several collector car clubs.
For many years, he has hosted a car show in conjunction with the annual Ceresco Days celebration. This year, the Midwest All-Ford Show and the Model T Speedster Reunion came to Ceresco on July 10-11 to help Swanson Ford celebrate the 100-year milestone.
Ford in their future
Magnus Swanson was 12 years old when his father moved the family from their native Sweden and settled them on a Nebraska farm. Always interested in things mechanical, Magnus started selling Fords for a dealer in nearby Wahoo, Nebr., before seeking a franchise of his own. Still unsure of his car business prospects, he continued to farm until 1912, when he and his wife, Anna, moved to town.
Started in a blacksmith shop, the Ford dealership remains in the same location, although additions and renovations have left little of the original building. A tornado that struck the town last year caused some damage to the building and prompted the latest remodeling.
In the early years, Magnus also partnered with brother Hans to sell Overlands from a building at the opposite end of the downtown business block until Ford insisted its dealers decide between Model T’s and Brand X. Magnus asked Anna for her opinion, and she told him they should stick with Ford, “because Henry Ford is making a car for the common man.”
At that time, Model T components were shipped by train to Omaha and assembled there. The Swansons would drive them 50 miles over the existing dirt roads to their dealership.
A train also figured into a Model T tale told in “The Ford Story,” the company’s 50th anniversary book in 1953. Magnus was giving a prospect a demonstration ride in 1913 and was barreling down a grade toward a railroad crossing just as a steam locomotive charged into sight. It was too late to stop the Model T, so Magnus gave ’er the gas and dashed over the crossing. “The train roared past,” the account read, “shearing the folded-down touring car top off as clean as a whistle, leaving Swanson and his rider safe, but badly shaken up.”
Times were tough during the Great Depression, and Doug said one thing his grandfather did to keep the business running was trade cars for grain. “Eventually, he sold the grain, and in the meantime, the farmer had a car to drive,” he said. In at least one instance, the grain brought more than the cost of the car, and he returned the difference to the farmer.
Magnus Swanson ran the dealership until his death in 1943. Anna owned the business until her death in 1971. Their oldest son, Roy, joined the business in 1923, starting a 48-year career as assistant manager.
Upon Magnus’ death, Russell, the third son, took over as manager, in addition to his John Deere business.
The second son, Doug’s father, Lester, returned from Civil Service in 1949 and took over as the dealership’s general manager. He and his wife, Mabel, purchased the business upon Anna’s death in 1971.Doug Swanson came back to the business when he returned from U.S. Air Force service in 1974 and took over as general manager in 1987 after his father was killed in an auto accident. “A family had left their car for repair, and he was driving them home,” Doug explained. “All five of the family members survived.”
Doug said the 1950s and ’60s was an exciting time to grow up in the Ford dealership — watching the stars through the transparent roof of a new 1954 Skyliner, helping prepare a ’55 Thunderbird for the high school homecoming parade, seeing people react to the stunning ‘55 Crown Victoria.
“In those days, the cars came all covered, and Dad and Roy had to hide them in barns around town so no one could see them until introduction day,” he recalled.
He was a high school junior when the new Mustang came out. “I drove the first one to school,” he recalled, “and let me tell you, we emptied the place out! Everyone had to come out and see it!”
Doug owns several vintage cars and a couple fire trucks, an interest held over from 25 years on the Ceresco Volunteer Fire Department. Being active in the old car hobby often allows him to deal in antique and special-interest vehicles.
Doug also recalls selling a car to Jay Leno’s mechanic. “It was a 1963 Ford Galaxie lightweight drag car with fiberglass front end, aluminum bumpers and a 427,” he related. “We trailered it to California to deliver it to him. We got to meet Jay Leno, tour his car collection and go to the ‘Tonight Show.’ He treated us great.”
At age 92, Mabel is co-owner of the business with Doug, and “she keeps an eye on us,” he said. His wife, Elaine, is the office manager. A brother, Darrel, owns a body shop in Ceresco, and another brother, Gary, is a railroad engineer. One sister, Ann, is a retired teacher and another, Jean, is a pharmacist and airline flight attendant.
With its 100-year heritage, Doug hopes Swanson Ford will continue as a small-town business for years to come. “I enjoy the business, and I love the community,” he said. “I still have to make a living, and I enjoy cars.”
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