When Louis Gelder was 4, he would walk a block from home down Territorial Road and stare across the street at his grandfather’s store.
Little Louis was forbidden to cross the street by himself, so he’d wait patiently for his grandfather, also named Louis Gelder, or someone else to come from the store to bring him across the street.
Current owners Joe (left) and Bruce (right) Gelder are seen here with their father Louis “Louie” Gelder during the 100 year celebration. They sell and lease agricultural equipment including tractors, plows and cultivators. They are based in Benton Township and service Southwest Michigan and Northwestern Indiana. John Madill / H-P staff
The elder Louis Gelder has long since died, and his grandson, now 80, gathered with his family Thursday to celebrate 100 years and five generations of the family-owned farm equipment business, Louis Gelder & Sons Co., now on Dewey Street in Benton Township.
More than 300 people came to the celebration. On hand were Gelder’s wife, Mary Ann, their sons Bruce and Joe, who now own the business, and Bruce Gelder’s sons, Mathew and Marc, who work there.
Louis Gelder recalls that from his earliest memory, “I’d come in the store and monkey around. We lived right across the street, but I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by myself, so I’d wait for somebody to come get me.”
It was natural that he would join the family business, because, “I didn’t know anything else.”
The business was founded in 1910 when a harness maker from Chicago moved to Millburg, bought Witbeck Hardware Co. on Territorial Road and changed the name to Louis Gelder. The store later moved to Benton Township.
Louis Gelder sold wagons, buggies, harnesses, farm implements, hardware and household goods, and the business housed the local Post Office.
Louis Gelder’s three sons, Morrie, Bert and Jonas, joined the business and helped it grow.
Around 1915, Louis Gelder started making barrels and crates for fruit packing to serve the needs of Southwest Michigan farmers. The train station across the street made for easy transport of the fruit.
Through the 1920s the business continued to grow, and a gas pump was added. By the 1930s, the face of agriculture was shifting, and the store expanded its lines to include the Oliver Plow, International Harvester products and McCormick-Deering tractors.
When Louis Gelder died in 1934, his sons took over the business and added to the name: Louis Gelder & Sons Co.
In the 1940s, each owner brought a son into the business: Morrie’s son Maurice in 1944, Bert’s son Irving in 1946 and Jonas’ son Louis in 1947. As technology changed, new brands were sold. Massey-Ferguson topped the line. The business continued to thrive, and the three cousins took over.
Modern gas pumps were added in the 1950s. The third generation of Gelders continued their success through the 1970s, and Jonas’ son Louis brought the fourth generation into the business with his son, Bruce, in 1979.
Cousins Maurice and Irving retired as the store celebrated its 70th anniversary in 1980. The remaining cousin, Louis, along with his wife, Mary Ann, bought the two retiring relatives’ shares in the business. They added new product lines such as Yanmar and Durrand Wayland, and new lawn and garden equipment brands like Woods, Bush Hog and Land Pride became a permanent fixture.
Louis’ second son, Joseph, joined his brother in the family business in 1982. The hardware side of the business was phased out, and the focus turned to equipment, service and parts centering on the product lines of Case and Ford tractors and New Holland hay tools.
Bruce and Joe bought the business in 1994 from their parents, Louis and Mary Ann.
“When we decided to retire, the boys were 38 and 40,” Mary Ann said. “It was a big undertaking. We were glad they wanted to do it.”
Bruce and Joe Gelder previously worked in other fields.
“I think this agriculture business gets in your blood and under your nails,” Bruce Gelder said. “I’d look out the window where I was working and think ‘there’s a better life.’ It was in my blood.”
In 1999, the two brothers set their sights on a new location on Dewey Avenue in Benton Township, six miles from the old store. The big move was made in 2000, and farm equipment product lines like New Holland tractors and Scag mowers were added.
The fifth generation of Gelders continued the family tradition when Bruce’s oldest son, Matthew, joined the business in 2004 and his youngest son, Marc, joined in 2008. Other new product lines like Antonio Carraro, Seppi, Tonutti and COE cherry shakers were added over the past 10 years.
Third-generation Louis Gelder, now in his 80s, said he never thought the business would make it this far.
“Most of the farm equipment dealers, they’re not here any more,” he said.
He remembers playing at the family store when he was a little boy. Starting at age 16, he traveled the country alone to pick up equipment from factories.
Louis’ son Joe remembers going to the store to work for his grandfather, Jonas. Joe started out sweeping the floors on Saturdays for $2. He worked his way up from parts to service to sales.
“We have to make changes to keep up with the times, always changing to fill the customers’ needs. That’s what makes a business endure,” he said.
Roger Tomoske, a Three Oaks farmer, said he’s been shopping at Louis Gelder for 40 years, and that his late father shopped there for 40 years before that.
“That’s 80 years. My brother comes here, too. It’s a family tradition because of their honesty and good-quality equipment,” said Tomoske, who attended the recent open house celebration. “When you want the best, you go to the best. Their honesty and fair play is the reason they’ve been in business 100 years.”
Rosa Gelder, the surviving widow of Maurice Gelder, also attended the celebration. She’s 100 years old.
“I’m proud that they’re doing so well,” she said. “It’s nice to see.”