Mertz Ford celebrates 100 years

The first shipment of Fords to Millstadt sit outside the old blacksmith shop where Don Mertz’s grandfather started the auto dealership.

In its 100 years of operation, Millstadt’s Mertz Ford has seen multiple generations of family ownership, allowing it to tell countless stories.

Throughout this time, Millstadt has remained Mertz Ford’s home. In fact, all of its primary locations throughout the years are all within a couple block radius. 

“We didn’t go far, but we did a lot in a small area,” owner Don Mertz said while proudly showcasing his 23,000-square-foot dealership building at 100 E. Washington Street. 

In honor of its milestone anniversary, the dealership now houses a display detailing Mertz’s history from beginning to present. As they reflected on the display, Don and his wife Debbie came to a realization: 

“Things have changed quite a bit in 100 years, but still it’s just 100 years,” Debbie concluded, as she gestured to the beginning of the display. 

And so it begins

In the early 1900s, William Mertz, Don’s grandfather, was a bright-eyed man fresh out of college. William decided he wanted a change of scenery from rural Floraville and therefore made his way into the auto industry.

He started selling for a sub dealer in Belleville and made his first sale in 1918. A certificate shows the car sold for $531.11, including service, spare tire and war tax. 

Then, William signed a contract with Ford to become a Ford dealer.  

“The first Model Ts were shipped to Millstadt in 1921,” Don previously told the Republic-Times. “My grandpa … got his Ford franchise in 1921. From there, he built the other facility where the service department was in 1925.” 

Before building this facility, which sat at the corner of Washington and Jefferson streets where Spike’s now resides, William’s business was operating in a blacksmith shop that he converted to a car dealership. 

Don noted this original location was across from today’s Circle K in Millstadt. 

As black and white photos show, William sold tractors right alongside early model Fords. 

“That was probably more common back then,” Don said. 

Newspaper clippings from William’s early days in the business told tales of customers trading in horses and mules for the coveted Ford Model T. 

“That was cutting edge back then, to trade your animals to get a new car,” Debbie said. “Now it goes much further. (Vehicles) are electric now, there’s so many cameras, there’s hot spots. Who would have thought?” 

William’s time running the dealership spanned into World War II, at which time Ford was busy making airplanes, jeeps and more for the war. 

Don said he finds an unexpected parallel between the dealerships’ situations then and in the present.

“We have a problem right now with not being able to get microchips. Well they couldn’t get anything for 2.5 years because they were building airplanes (for the) war back then,” Don said. 

A flash from the past 

Don said his dad took over the business in 1961. In order to distinguish himself from his father, William Jr. went by Bill. Throughout his time leading the business, Bill earned many awards, some of which are on the display Don made for the centennial. 

One thing from Bill’s era stands out among them, though: a racing jacket with “511” on the back.

“(My dad) had this car, the 511, and … they used to all get together every weekend and go to Lake Hill Speedway in Missouri,” Don said, explaining a man named Jodie Hodde was the race car driver. 

Decades later while working on the current dealership, Don met a painter with the last name Hodde. 

“I said, ‘You wouldn’t be related to Jodie Hodde by chance, would you?’ and he goes, ‘Well, Jodie Hodde was my dad but he died when I was (younger),’” Don recalled. 

Don then asked the man if he knew Jodie drove Bill’s race car. The son said he did not know much about his dad’s racing days. 

“At that time, I went to the old dealership, grabbed this picture (of Hodde with the race car), put it on the copy machine, made a copy of it and brought it back over. That was unreal! That was so cool because he never knew his dad (well),” Don said. 

In the 1980s, the Mertzes converted the old bowling alley across the street from their current dealership into office space and a showroom. 

Turning old into new

There are two major restoration projects that mark Don’s time overseeing the family business: one being that of the present-day dealership, the other being of a very special 1990 Ford Bronco. 

Seeing the business was outgrowing its spaces, Don began looking for Mertz Ford’s new forever home. A nearby property which housed the former Golden Dipt Breading factory caught his eye, and so the idea to convert the old factory into an expansive dealership was born. 

In 2011, Don told the then-CEO of Ford his plan. 

“I was talking to him and I was like, ‘I don’t know, it sounds crazy to do all this,’” Don said, stating that the CEO was very encouraging of his larger-than-life vision. 

Renovations started in 2012, with 50 feet of the salvageable factory building being removed in the front and an addition bringing up the rear of the dealership. By January 2013, all that was left were small finishing touches, Don said.

The dealership now houses a 16-bay service department, sizable office spaces and, of course, a large showroom. 

Approximately six years later, Julie Walsh approached the Mertzes with a very special request. 

“(Her son) Triston’s dad got killed in Iraq, and he was young when his dad got killed. Him and his dad drove this Bronco from here to California when he was a little boy,” Don explained. “He always told his mom that when he turned 16 he wanted to drive it. So his mom got the idea that before he turned 16, she’d like to fix that car up and make it really nice for him.” 

From there, the community banded together to donate parts and other materials necessary for the rehab. 

Several Mertz employees volunteered for the project, which took three months. 

During this time, Julie told Triston she had sold the Bronco in order to get a new car for him. Having no idea what was going on inside the dealership, Triston was so upset. 

That all melted away on his birthday when Triston walked through the doors of the dealership to see several friends, family and service members present the refurbished Bronco. 

“It was a very emotional day,” Debbie summarized, with Don adding it was one of the highlights of his career. 

To this day, Triston can still be spotted driving the Bronco around Millstadt. 

Moving forward 

Don said there has been one consistent challenge throughout his time with Ford: keeping customers buying local. 

“I think everybody should try and buy close to home,” Don said, later adding. “The reason I say buying local is important is because we like to give back to the community, and people buying local helps us to do that.”

Over the years, the Mertzes have helped with several organizations, including Meals on Wheels, the local VFW, the Optimist Club and local schools.

With that, Don encourages community members to stop by – if not to buy a car – to at least check out the 100 years worth of history he’s compiled. 

“I’d say that anybody who wants to come by and see a piece of interesting history, this is it because it’s local history and it’s pretty cool,” Don said.

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