Words and Pictures
Oneonta Sales Company
by Karyl Sage. Photos courtesy of Russ Padden and Karyl Sage.
Early building and dealership
A mainstay of the community, The Oneonta Sales Company operated an automotive business for over 80 years at 27-33 Market Street in Oneonta. It was founded by Riley J. Warren who came to Oneonta in 1910 and started a partnership with a Mr. Fitch, selling gasoline engines and farm equipment.
Riley J. Warren/Beatrice Blanding
Riley J. Warren was born in 1871 in Pleasant Brook, south of Cherry Valley and attended the district school with one term at Cooperstown. He graduated from Albany Business College in 1889. The last year of his attendance there and the following year he was employed by the T. T. Haydick Wagon Company at the Albany branch. In 1890 he returned to Pleasant Brook and opened a general store in which he was assisted by Mrs. Warren, formerly Miss Lillian Nielson Winne of Pleasant Brook, whom he married November 17, 1892. The Pleasant Brook store continued for twenty years.
Following Mr. Warren's twenty-first birthday in February 1892, the town caucus elected him, an active Republican, as Town Clerk. That service was interrupted by his election as County Treasurer. Just before completing that six-year term, he entered into business at Oneonta in a partnership with Mr. Fitch, but Mr. Fitch died in spring 1912. When Mr. Warren completed his term he moved to Oneonta to carry on that business on Market Street. The family lived at 12 Walnut Street for their entire lives. Mr. Warren distributed gasoline engines and farm machinery until the fall 1912, when he began the Oneonta Sales Company. The franchise came to include Ford, Mercury and Lincoln automobiles. At one time, also Ford tractors and Firestone, Socony gasoline, and Mobil oil products.
He was named the Oneonta Ford dealer in 1912. The company's building was erected in 1920 but several additions were necessary to care for the increasing volume of business. In one year in the 1930s, the agency handled nearly 1,500 Ford units of cars, trucks, and tractors, and was the largest Firestone account in the world. The business totaled more than a million dollars in sales. His daughter, Mrs. Beatrice (Donald) Blanding, was associated with her father and as a Christmas gift from her parents in 1925 she received a substantial partnership in the Oneonta Sales. Their relationship was very close and she always credited her father with helping her to develop the ability to prosper in what was then a masculine business. Mr. Warren died June 6, 1941. Following his death, Mrs. Warren and Mrs. Blanding continued the business. The firm was incorporated in 1949, and Mrs. Blanding became President of the concern with Mrs. Warren as Vice-President. Mrs. Warren died in April 1953 following an automobile accident.
Office Staff, 1957: Theresa Leslie, Sidney Levine, Janice Scharr, Beatrice Blanding, Florence Disbrow.
In 1932 Mr. Sidney Levine came to Oneonta, to manage the Palace Theatres. He joined the Oneonta Ford Sales Co. in 1934, which became the Oneonta Sales Co. in 1975, where he worked as General Manager and then President until his retirement in 1997.
Mrs. Blanding was married to Donald Blanding, a businessman in Binghamton. They had homes in both cities. After his death she remained at her Walnut Street home. She was active in her church, The First Methodist. Often on Sundays she would visit her cousins in Pleasant Valley. She rarely traveled and was most happy with her life in Oneonta. She would attend meetings and conferences related to the business.
In her later years there was always an employee to assist her. When she arrived at work in the morning she would drive to the front door and a person would take her car and park it and when she was ready to leave the building the car would be brought around for her. On Saturday mornings, before lunchtime, a worker would take her car to Wall Street and park it behind Bresee’s. When she left at noon, a driver would take her to Bresee’s and she would have lunch at the famous Health Bar, often with one of the Bresee brothers. When she finished, her car was available for her at the back entrance.
When her health prevented her from the regular routine, she would be at the office for part of the day. Later after she was confined to her home, she had round the clock care, but kept up with the business.
Building Lay-out /Annex/Used Car Lot
The building at the corner of Chestnut Street Extension and Market Street was constructed to have access from both streets. The first floor had a showroom with cars on display, and offices in the front as well as a counter for the Parts Department. The rear of the building had two sections for radiator and mechanical work and could be accessed from the front and the rear. The second floor had two large doors on the Chestnut Street Extension side. One door opened into the body shop and the second door to a large area for vehicle storage.
Directly across Market Street was a building between West Nesbitt Feed Mill and B-Line Moving. The building was known as the annex. Routine work was done there, such as oil change and tire mounting. The back of the building had access to the railroad tracks and tires were delivered to that building and stored there.
As the business grew, property at the head of Market Street was used as a used car lot. The city fire and police department are now at that location.
Building at 23-27 Market Street (1930s).
Employees: The employees represented a true microcosm of the city’s population. It was a diverse combination representing the ethnic, religious, and ability characteristics of the city. All Mrs. Blanding expected was a good work ethic, honesty, loyalty and promptness. Mrs. Blanding was never known to lay off a worker if business was slow. There was always work for them to do, painting, cleaning, and moving items and sometimes even small jobs at her home. During many years over 50 people were employed at The Oneonta Sales Company.
Undated office photo: Includes Riley Warren and Beatrice Blanding (the taller woman).
Delivery of Parts and Tires: During the early years and up until the 1970s the company had an extensive business in the delivery of part and tires. It was the regular job for a full-time employee. For some new, young employees their first job was to accompany and help the driver. They would be gone for most of each day, delivering to businesses in the surrounding counties. The parts department continued to serve area automotive businesses until the business closed.
Stock Room: Art Loucks, Stuart Vroman, Robert Vroman, Leroy Perry,
Office Staff: The office was on a raised area at the side of the showroom. Mrs. Blanding’s desk along with three others was in that area. Directly off that was a small office used by Mr. Levine. Usually there were three additional female employees for office work. At one time, the workers would go to the office area on payday and sign their checks. One of the office workers would take them to the bank, cash them and return with the money and put the correct amount in an envelope for the employee. Mrs. Blanding arranged financing for customers. Some accounts were carried through The Citizen’s Bank, which is now Key Bank. The company held the accounts for some customers. Customers would come in to the company each month to make a payment, including those carried by the bank. For the customer, Mrs. Blanding would record the transaction in red ink on the back of their contract. This personal connection with the customer was an important part of the business. Employees were encouraged to shop locally, and pay their bills with a personal contact.
Mechanics/Radiator Repair: Many exceptionally well-trained mechanics were employed. The company kept current with new innovations and mechanics were often sent out of the area for training. The radiator repair department was well known for exceptional work.
Radiator Department advertisements:
Body Shop: The body shop was located on the second floor with direct access from Chestnut Street Extension. The workmanship of the body shop employees was above standards and well regarded in the community. The paint shop was known for superior work.
Mechanics, Radiator Department, Body Shop.
Sales: For many years the Vice-President and several salesmen would travel to Buffalo for the introduction of the new models of the Ford cars. It was a large promotion by Ford Motor Company and models and styles were kept secret until the announcement day. Cars being delivered by transport or train would be covered as well as the show room windows. People attending the introduction of the new models would be presented with gifts or flowers. In 1930 The Daily Star announced that The Oneonta Sales Company was planning a public reception at their Market Street showroom. Over 3,000 saw the new Ford car on exhibition there. The salesroom of local agency was filled with visitors for two days with no unfavorable comment. 200 orders for new Fords were booked by Oneonta Sales Company during the showing.
Salesmen: Gerald Levine, Ed Deery, Walt Mindich, not identified. Absent: Robert Sage.
Sales continued high until the loss of the franchise in 1975. The Oneonta Sales Company was often a successful bidder for municipality contracts for vehicles, trucks and police cars. Many trucking firms routinely kept their fleet updated with Ford trucks.
The company had a display at local Home Shows as well as the Morris Fair each year for many years. The Oneonta Sales Company also sponsored Ford Motor Company’s Punt, Pass and Kick football competition each year.
Firestone Home and Auto Store: From the 1940s until 1955 the company operated a Firestone Home and Auto Store at 128 Main Street (now the Clinton Plaza area). The inventory included toys, games, trains, bicycles, sleds, electrical appliance, gas ranges, auto accessories, seat covers, Christmas decorations, televisions, paint, rain coats, lunch boxes, garden tools, flashlights, and batteries. When the store closed, inventory was moved to the Market Street building and automotive items were continued with other items phased out.
Oneonta Sales display for Firestone Home and Auto Store at a home show.
Loss of franchise/Urban Renewal: In 1973 Urban Renewal uprooted many businesses and drastically changed the city. The Oneonta Sales Company continued although access to the Market Street area was often difficult for customers and employees and for the delivery of parts, tires and new cars. Mrs. Blanding was determined to weather the change. She was totally committed to remain in the building that her father had built. In 1975 Ford Motor Company was also making changes. Ford introduced new sales techniques. It required that dealers have a large modern building on the outskirts of communities and all cars were to be outside. Customers could then see what was available as they drove by and could visit the area off hours to investigate what was there. Mrs. Blanding was totally committed to the city and felt that when people came for work on their car they should be able to frequent the business district of the city.
Ford Motor Company also required that dealers were to accept the vehicles that Ford sent them regardless if there were no customer orders for those vehicles. This rapidly moved cars from the manufacturer and they then became the responsibility of the dealer. Dealers were charged interest for the cars as they were not paid for. This was in total opposition of Mrs. Blanding’s method of conducting business. She paid for every vehicle when it was delivered and she refused to take vehicles that she knew would not sell. She knew her customers’ needs and what they desired. She also felt that the cars should be kept inside. There was ample room for new and used car inventory on the second floor (accessible from Chestnut Street Extension). At one time a building on Broad Street was rented for storage of new cars. That was destroyed by fire and four cars were lost. Standing firm and not willing to move to the South Side, the Ford franchise was terminated by the Ford Motor Company. The Oneonta Sales Company did acquire a used car lot on Main Street as their inventory of used cars increased. The decline of the dealership was directly related to the Urban Renewal and the thinking of the 1970s that suburban sprawl was necessary for business growth.
Mrs. Blanding was a true philanthropist, with most gifts being given anonymously. She developed the Riley J. and Lillian N. Warren and Beatrice W. Blanding Foundation with the purpose of funding charitable organizations in the areas relating to arts and culture, child welfare, education, hospital and health care, human services, and people with disabilities Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been and continues to be awarded to local as well as out of state charitable organizations. Local churches, cemeteries, hospitals, clubs, libraries, colleges, and activities for children are helped by the Foundation. Her legacy lives on, but unfortunately, the city has plans to demolish the building at 27-33 Market Street.
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