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Oldest Dodge dealership in W.Va. driven out

December 22, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- Union Sales Dodge, the oldest Dodge dealership in West Virginia, was one of 789 Chrysler dealers that lost franchises in Chrysler's big purge of 2009.

After 96 years in business -- 94 years selling Dodge cars and trucks -- "Chrysler gave us just three weeks before it pulled the plug on our computer. After that, we couldn't order cars, parts or offer warranties," said owner Bonn A. "Buzz" Poland, 59.

He sold his inventory of new vehicles to a dealer in Pennsylvania.

Left with a dozen full-time employees with few new job prospects, Poland said he was reluctant to just close up shop.

"It happened so fast," he said. "I knew they didn't have a promising job market. I just couldn't bring myself to shut down the business."  

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Since the dealership always sold used cars along with new, he decided to go on as an independent used-car dealer, plus do mechanical work on all car brands. The recession did that venture in, too. By mid-November, all of the employees were gone and 25 used vehicles were sold to wholesalers.

Poland started washing cars as a teenager in the late 1960s. He took over the business from his father, William D. Poland, in 1976. William D. took over from his father, Bonn Arthur Poland, shortly after returning from service as a World War II Navy combat pilot. William D. Poland died in 1984 at age 69.

Bonn Arthur, who died in 1974 at age 85, started the business selling Fords in 1913. On Jan. 1, 1915, he became one of the first dealers to put a Dodge in a showroom.

Fords and Dodges were sold side by side until the early 1920s, when Bonn Arthur, fed up with a Ford policy that made him add poor-selling Ford farm tractors to his inventory, decided to drop Ford.

"He was doing well selling Dodges by that time anyway," Buzz Poland said.

The dealership spent nearly all of the last 100 years on the same corner of Queen and Race streets. Its first building housed a company that milled lumber for the building of the area's railroad industry in the middle of the 19th century, Poland said.

Union Sales sold other automobile makes early on through the 1960s.

"My grandfather sold Maxwells and Pullmans. In the 1950s, it was a German car called the LLoyd and in the '60s, we sold Hillmans and Sunbeams," Poland said.

Subsequent expansions over the years to the original building included additions to the repair shops, showroom and office space. A new showroom, converted from a fast-food restaurant, was added on the Queen Street side in the 1980s.

Union Sales has enjoyed a lasting bit of nostalgia over the decades in the form of a black, 1921 Dodge touring sedan. Bonn Arthur sold the car originally and later took it back in trade. It never left the dealership and has been in more than one local parade. In original condition except for a new-style fuel pump, it still runs well today, testimony to a kind of American pride of workmanship. 

The old car sits by itself these days in the Queen Street showroom, no longer sharing the floor with shiny new Dodge models from the early 20th century through the early 21st.

Even if the old Dodge is immobile, Poland is moving on. He has formally announced his intent to run for one of the three Berkeley County Commission seats opening up in next year's election.

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