by Sarah Squires
Both Walz Chevrolet Buick GMC and Dahl Automotive have deep roots in Winona and the surrounding region, dating back generations. For the Dahl family, the auto business sprang from a general store in Westby, Wis. in 1911; for the Walz family, it all started in the late 1800s with a lively butcher shop at Third and Main streets in Winona. As the auto industry was introduced to the streets of Southeastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin, the Walz and Dahl families saw an opportunity to help usher in a new era of motorized four-wheeled transportation.
Jacob and Emma Walz had two children: Arthur and Norm. Jacob owned and operated Walz Bros. Meat Market at Third and Main streets for more than 30 years, beginning in the late 1800s. Known as an excellent bowler and lively character, in 1891 he responded to a challenge by another butcher as to who could kill and butcher a beef cow faster by sending a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. In his letter, Jacob said he would put down $500 for a timed contest to find the fastest butcher in town. “The winner takes the money, as money beats wind every time,” he wrote.
The Walz Bros. Meat Market was also known for Jacob’s unique animal collection. In 1900, two live bears arrived from Washington State and were displayed at the store for two weeks before they were butchered. In 1902, a pet deer housed behind the shop found its way into the store when a door was left open. It leapt through the large glass storefront and shattered the window, before he could be corralled in his pen. Just a few days later, two golden fox were shipped to the market from southern Mexico, and displayed in a cage in the back of the shop. A friend offered to ship a 12-foot alligator from Florida for Jacob’s collection; the gift was eventually declined for lack of proper alligator housing at the downtown Winona market.
Norm Walz first began working in the world of automobiles in 1908. “I went to work at the Harry Duncan Garage at 65 East Second Street,” he recalled in a 1970s interview. “I took a job driving a panel delivery truck, a one-cylinder Brush owned by the Winona Cleaning Works at 66 West Fourth Street, before doing chauffeuring for Mayor William Hamilton and H.M. Lamberton.” In 1912, he joined Winona Motor Company, a Cadillac and Overland dealership owned by Al Clausen and Peter Steffes at the foot of Johnson Street. After seven years with that company, he went to Western Motor Sales at 120 Main Street.
Western Motor Company was then owned by Benjamin J. Bohn, and was previously housed at 123 West Third Street. The company became the Winona Chrysler dealership when the first Chrysler cars were produced in 1924. After Bohn was killed in an accident in 1931, Norm purchased the business.
Norm sold the business to his two sons, Jack “Butch” Walz and Donald A. Walz, in 1952, and by 1955, the company had secured franchises with Buick, Oldsmobile, and GMC.
The current dealership is located at 225 W. Third Street, providing a visible location for the company that has been a fixture in downtown Winona for decades.
Andrew H. Dahl purchased the general store in Westby, Wis., in 1884, with Otto Galstad, and they called their business Galstad & Dahl, General Merchandise. It was later called A.H. Dahl & Co. General Store, and Andrew’s sons —mainly Chester and Harry—helped run the business. While Harry was in Niagara Falls on his honeymoon with Nellie Alice Riege, he received a telegram that alerted him to the news that the Ford Motor Company had made A.H. Dahl & Co. General Store a Ford agent. Model T’s began driving the streets in that small Wisconsin town.
The Model T’s first arrived packed in crates and not fully assembled, and the Dahls had to assemble the components. Soon, other members of the Dahl family became involved in Ford dealerships of their own, in Marinette, Plymouth, Racine, Viroqua, Oshkosh, La Crosse and elsewhere. The family purchased the La Crosse Ford dealership in 1915 from the Hofweber family, which had run the agency since 1909. Soon, booming sales prompted Harry to purchase more land at Sixth and King streets in La Crosse, and constructed a two-story building. The second floor housed the assembly work.
Rising gas prices in the 1920s resulted in diminished interest in new vehicles, and Harry came up with a creative plan to entice potential buyers. On Saturdays, he sold gas at a great bargain price, but only to those who had purchased a Ford from his shop. It worked.
The Dahls continued to acquire Wisconsin Ford dealerships, adding Watertown, Kenosha, West Salem and Hillsboro to the list. In Minnesota, Lake City found a Ford dealer in Dahl, along with Davenport, Ottumwa, and Mason City, Iowa; Terre Haute, Indiana; Allentown, Penn.; Utica and Yonkers, New York; and Kankakee, Springfield, Freeport, and Aurora, Ill.
Other dealerships were added. Chester “Chet” Dahl purchased a Chevrolet dealership in Kansas City, Missouri, where he helped popularize used car sales. Chet went on to purchase several more Chevrolet dealerships, eventually becoming known as the “Chevrolet King.”
Today, the Dahl dealerships are consolidated in operations in La Crosse and Onalaska, Wis., and here in Winona. As the family business prepared to celebrate entry into its second century of business, it opened the 10,000 -square foot Dahl family automobile museum in an old showroom in La Crosse was opened, which displays family history in the automobile industry that spans generations.