Lewis family valued community connections since 1967

·4 min read

Oct. 21—Jim Lewis has a giant scrapbook filled with every newspaper ad from the 1980s he ran in The Lebanon Reporter.

He points out the cars and the people who helped him and his brothers, Steve and David, build a business that was tied deeply to the Lebanon and Boone County communities.

This month saw the end of an era when Gene Lewis Ford — one of the oldest Ford family dealerships in Indiana, possibly the United States — sold to D-Patrick Ford of Lebanon. The Lewis family were steeped in the community.

"I've been here since 1968, sweeping gravel, putting light bulbs in lights, sweeping shops," Jim Lewis said of his beginnings in the auto dealership that bears his father's name. "My father passed away in '84. I was just 30 and Steve was 25 and David was 20. We were the youngest Ford dealers in Indiana."

Jim said the three were too young to know they didn't know anything. Gene died unexpectedly following a heart bypass, but he taught his sons the value of "keep digging."

"Concentrate on work," Jim Lewis said. "Don't come to work to find out what's going to happen. Make something happen."

The brothers kept working and pushing to make the business work. As they were burying their father, they were being told how the dealership was $2 million in debt.

The history of the Lewis family begins in 1912, when Perry Lewis started selling newfangled automobiles at a dealership in Illinois. World War I started, and Perry Lewis joined the Army Air Corps.

"He worked on Eddie Rickenbacker's airplane," Jim Lewis said. "He was Rickenbacker's machine gun mechanic. The propeller would go around, and he would time the bullets."

After the war, Lewis came to Crawfordsville and opened Perry Lewis Ford. Steve Lewis said selling cars in the early part of the 20th Century was risky.

"It was the horseless carriage," he said. "There were no curbs, no streets. His friends were going, 'Perry, are you an idiot? That's a horseless carriage.' He had to take a Model T out to a farmer, get on his horse, ride it around and appraise it. Then allow (the farmer's) horse for a trade-in and ride the horse back into town."

Perry had two sons who followed him in selling cars, Perry Jr. and Gene. Perry Jr. opened a dealership in Frankfort. Gene came to Lebanon.

All three of Gene Lewis' boys worked with their father, learning the auto business and business in general. Steve Lewis said his dad started a storage business using old semi-truck trailers. They also owned real estate. All of them live in Boone County. Steve Lewis is also a town board member in Ulen — another indication that community is important.

All three Lewis brothers and Gene went to Culver Military Academies, a connection they had with the new owner, Mike O'Daniel.

"It's kind of nice to find someone who likes to go fishing, if you like to go fishing," Jim said about the connection with O'Daniel. "You kind of got the same values."

Another major factor in the deal were the employees. The Lewises wanted to ensure that the employees were taken care of in the sale. Lebanon's massive growth was the final factor in the deal, aside from financial terms. The Waterford development on 2,000 acres south of Lebanon and the new sports complex were major contributors making the dealership attractive, Jim said.

The boys admit the sale bittersweet, but say it was time.

"Our employees are the reason for our success," Steve Lewis said of employees who have worked with Gene Lewis Ford for 40 years. "We've got two people back in service ... that came out of retirement during this transition."

Jim, Steve and David will not retire completely. They all plan to continue to help with the dealership transition. Gene Lewis Ford will become a part of the history of Lebanon, like Kincaid Chrysler or Fred Siess Co.

"We really like all the people we work with and all the people we sold to," Jim said. "That's probably the most important thing."

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