Oregon Trails: Car Dealers Make History

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MEDFORD, Ore. — Most historians agree that nothing has changed the American landscape like the development and growth of the automobile and related industries and that’s true also for Southern Oregon. By 1910, Medford had more cars per capita than any other town in the United States.

The first cars in Southern Oregon looked a sounded a lot like these restored autos that toured the rogue valley in June. By 1910, there were hundreds of cars in the area. But it was in 1906 and ’07 that the first car dealers opened their doors in Medford, and likely in Southern Oregon.

William Hodson, who was also the first to drive a car to Crater Lake, opened a garage in 1906, then became a dealer the next year. Another dealership also opened in 1907, run by A.W. Walker, with the Medford Automobile Company. The first ford dealership came to Medford about 1910.

Charles gates, also known as “pop” gates opened a dealership at the corner of main and riverside in the New Sparta Building, before he built a showroom a block away in the early 20’s. In addition to Fords, he also sold Overlands. The Ford dealership remained there until about 1940.

Meanwhile the Sparta building was host to several dealerships and auto related businesses for several years. By the 1950’s Crater Lake Ford was in this location on Fir Street. Today, it’s in a modern building on Biddle Road, where several dealerships are now located. In 1921, John Skinner’s grandfather used his mechanic skills to start a car sales and service business with a Buick agency on East Main.

“In those days you could have the Buick sales franchise and the Buick service franchise, and he didn’t like sales much. He wasn’t much of a talker, and so he did Buick service. Certified Buick service and then about ’29, ’30–in there, someplace he took on the sales. They made him take on the sales end of it, which he did reluctantly,” said John Skinner with Skinner Autoplex.

By 1927 skinners was agent for Oakland and Pontiac Brands. In the mid-30’s they moved down on Auto Row on Riverside. In the late 50’s, under Skinners’ dad, Lon Skinner, named it Skinner Buick-Cadillac. Then, in 1981, John Skinner took over the business out on South Riverside where it is now.

“I became the youngest Cadillac dealer in the U.S. At that point. I was like 28 or something like that! I renamed it Skinner Autoplex,” said John Skinner.

In 1946, another Southern Oregon family embarked on what has now become one of the largest auto retailing businesses in the United States. That’s when Walt Deboer opened Walt’s Lithia Motors on the plaza in Ashland. Back then it was a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership.

In its first year, they had five employees and sold 14 cars a month. But in 1968 Walt Deboer was killed in an auto pedestrian accident and Sid Deboer left college to take over the family business. It soon moved to Medford to take over the Dodge Center and a long period of growth began.

“The private business that we had would’ve been fine for the family. But I’m not the kind of person that’s satisfied with ‘good enough,’ and I knew we had a lot of young, vibrant people that there wouldn’t be room for if we just stayed as a small privately held company in Southern Oregon. So we convinced Wall Street to give us the money in ’96, and became actually the third public retailer of autos in the United State and we’re still now the only surviving original 3 one of the original 3 that’s still running with same management group, the same ownership from that start in ’96,” said Sid DeBoer of Lithia Motors.

The Klamath County Museum was not able to say who the first dealer was, but these photos show some early dealers from the teens and 20’s. This Essex Dealer, that was once a division of Hudson, took local advertising to new heights in 1929 when he drove one of his stock showroom cars to the top of table rock to demonstrate its toughness! Even today, car dealers make up a good share of the local advertising revenue, although few perform stunts like this anymore.

The parking garage on Riverside is where “Pop” Gates had his first Ford dealership in Medford, wasn’t too long until the Sparta Building was finished and he moved his operation down there. Over the years, a lot of car businesses have come and gone, but still many of them are centered along Riverside Avenue.

In Grants Pass, the first dealership is believed to have been the Maxwell dealership of Frank Olding in 1909. The Josephine County Historical Society says an early newspaper mentions a garage in 1907, but it’s not clear if there were selling cars.