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Gilsinger Museum Preserves Family's History

by Clay Geyer

Published: Friday, January 8, 2021

Editor's note: A museum that opened nearly three years ago tells the story of what was once the oldest John Deere dealership in Indiana and the second oldest in the United States.

The P.J. Gilsinger and Co. Museum near Winamac opened in April 2018. It features a large collection of John Deere memorabilia and also celebrates the history of the Gilsinger family.

It was in the fall of 1899 that a small Pulaski County village opened its doors to a new mercantile. With youthful optimism, this small store held the dreams of two young men, John Shank and J. P. Gilsinger. Shelves filled the mercantile with clothes, boots, shoes, household goods, hand tools, hardware and fencing. In fact, you could buy nearly everything you needed in this little store, and it wasn't long before groceries also filled their shelves.

Joseph P. Gilsinger, known as J.P., and John Shank began their small business together when the Watts family in Pulaski allowed them to rent a building in town. They reserved a place in one corner of their new store to stock some of the earliest farm tools and equipment that were available at the time. It was the sale of farm equipment that would be the lasting legacy of the Gilsinger family through the next four generations. Shank and Gilsinger prospered and moved their business two years later to a larger building across from the Pulaski Mill and recorded their first equipment sales by mid July of 10 Deering binders and seven mowers.

Fires were not uncommon in those early days. In the Pulaski historical records of 1902, it is written that a fire occurred in the original Watts Mercantile Bld. It recorded that the fire had destroyed all of the Shank and Gilsinger stock. They did not close down or give up on their family business but continued to work until they again showed a profit. In that same year, Shank and Gilsinger were hard at work assembling and selling McCormick-Deering corn binders.

As their small business continued to grow, the household and grocery part of the business remained at the mercantile but the hardware and agricultural portion of the business was moved to a new location across the street. At this new added store, customers could find Sherwin-Williams paint and DeLaval milking equipment as well as farm and agriculture tools and equipment. Early ledgers record that the horse-drawn plow was the main agricultural product sold in the early years of this business.

By 1908, the partnership remained intact. However, J.P. Gilsinger was now totally in charge of all the agricultural products.

In the spring of 1910, the business held its first Oliver plow day and soon began selling walk-behind equipment as well as horse-drawn equipment. New farm equipment was being developed and Gilsinger was able to provide cultivators, corn planters and buggies for his customers.

Prior to selling John Deere full-time, Gilsinger was also selling Oliver, McCormick-Deering, New Idea and International Harvester, to name a few. He also marketed the historical wood wagons of Birdsell, Weber and Studebaker. As part of the Shank and Gilsinger enterprise they used their keen sense of marketing to include selling Auburn automobiles.

In 1923, the John Deere Model D tractor was introduced and J.P. Gilsinger was excited to sell his first new John Deere Model D tractor in 1930. Max Gilsinger, the son of J.P., began working as a salesman and on April 1, 1937 he sold a new John Deere Model B tractor, a plow and cultivator for $1,130. He took it in trade for two cows, two heifers and some farm equipment valued at $580. Two hundred dollars cash was paid on the day of delivery and the remaining balance was financed for a short period of time.

Not only was J.P. Gilsinger a successful entrepreneur, but he also brought the village of Pulaski its first telephone service and provided water from his own store to other residences nearby. He was also able to offer electric service to homes in Pulaski that was generated from the power plant behind his mercantile.

In 1940, Gilsinger's daughter, Marcella, began as a bookkeeper at the business, with his three sons also working at his side. After their service in World War II, Max became a manager and salesman. Basil focused on repairing appliances, cutting meat and selling parts. He eventually became the parts manager and his younger brother, Eugene Paul, would follow in the footsteps of his brothers, helping to sell parts until he passed away in 1965.

In 1949, a new cement block building was constructed to house a new Gilsinger Implement business where they also pumped gas. John Deere persuaded them to move their business to the county seat of Winamac in 1958 and they relocated in the old Kain Bldg., which is now known as Jenkins Service.

After J.P. passed away, the main focus of the Gilsinger family business was to sale the farm equipment.

Gilsinger valued the labor of his family and taught his family members to appreciate the customers. It was in 1966, that J.P.'s grandson, Paul J. Gilsinger, began working in the store. Paul had just turned 11 the year prior when his father, Eugene Paul died. Paul's mother passed away when he was only 3, so it was his extended family of aunts and uncles that raised him. At this young age, Paul remembers helping out behind the parts counter, stocking shelves and helping customers to get the parts they needed. He said finding parts was not as difficult then as it is today, because most of the two-cylinder tractor parts and tillage parts like shovels bolts were interchangeable. He gained valuable experience and learned every aspect of running a business that focused the direction of his life.

Paul majored in business management and accounting at the University of Notre Dame and at age 21, when he graduated, he was given a sales position. Paul says he has always enjoyed working with numbers and liked accounting, but his favorite part of the job was his love of sales and working with farmers.

Following the days of the two-cylinder tractors, the next big advancement in agricultural equipment was the "New Generation of Power" tractor series; with the 3010, 3020, 4010 and 4020 models. Paul smiles as he recalls the details of his first sale. It was a John Deere 4400 gas combine and a John Deere 830 utility 3-cylinder diesel tractor. When asked which tractors were his favorites, he admits that it was the John Deere 4430 and 4440. He was not alone, because both of these tractors were difficult to keep on hand. Paul always had a waiting list of farmers wanting to purchase them as fast as they were delivered to the business.

The greatest challenges for Gilsinger's farm equipment business were the 1980s, because of the high interest rate, low commodity prices and unfavorable weather. In 1990, Paul bought the Knox dealership from the Tonner Brothers and also later purchased the Plymouth Farm Center and Warsaw Farm Center. Paul and his wife, Brenda, we're very busy raising a family while managing the John Deere businesses. Brenda helped with the parts and inventory, and she later shuttled parts between Winamac, Knox, Leesburg, Plymouth, Goshen and Mishawaka stores.

From those early days helping his grandfather, Paul never could have imagined the technological advancements that would be found in agriculture today. In the 121 years of this rich family history, the Gilsingers continue to appreciate the connection they have always had with their family, customers and employees. History records this unique family business and their love of John Deere equipment.

The Gilsinger family was the oldest John Deere dealer in Indiana, and it was also the second oldest John Deere dealership in United States prior to their merger with GreenMark in 2014.

Matt, the son of Paul and Brenda Gilsinger, continues to carry on the family legacy. He first began washing combines and remembers that in his early years he was assigned to help behind the parts counter at Gilsinger Implement. He grew to learn every aspect of the family business and, like his father, graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in business management. Today, Paul can be found at GreenMark Equipment in Winamac with the title of store lead/ag sales. Matt holds the same title at GreenMark Equipment in Plymouth.

The family business history also included Paul and Brenda's daughter, Anna. True to the family legacy, Anna has a love for sales and business and attended St. Mary's College and Notre Dame. She graduated with a masters degree in accounting and, with degree in hand, she returned to the family business to work at all of the stores, eventually finding herself in accounting. She followed her role model, Aunt Marcella, who was J.P. Gilsinger's daughter who had worked for 50 years in the family's implement business. Anna is highly motivated and is now using her business training in the world of real estate, with Remax Results, where she has excelled.

The early years of this family legacy and other hidden treasures, including much of the history of the village of Pulaski, has been sheltered in a small museum located about eight miles south of Winamac. The P.J. Gilsinger & Co. Museum, named after Paul J., is nestled along the west bank of the Tippecanoe River in Pulaski, which has a population of 50 residents, more or less.

The Gilsinger family has been collecting their family history for years and enjoys sharing memories of the past.

When you walk into the museum you will find a collection of valuable pieces of memorabilia that have been passed down through the generations, including items that were sold by the Gilsinger's. The show room is home to a John Deere Waterloo Boy kerosene-powered tractor and a two-cylinder John Deere Model D tractor. Horse-drawn items, such as plows, planters, drills, seeders and buggies, are on display. A wood box wagon is on display with all of its options and is stenciled to identify that it had been manufactured for J.P. Gilsinger in Pulaski, Ind. Glass shadow boxes and wall displays are filled with many Gilsinger promotional items such as calendars, thermometer, yard sticks, pocket ledgers, toy tractors, pedal tractors, colorful advertising, sales receipts and old literature.

When corn was harvested by hand, a wooden horse-drawn wagon was used. It is educational to see the shelves displaying cast iron foot warmers, cornhusking tools, corn shellers, corn dryers, grain cleaners, grinders, and many other hand tools. On display is the old heavy wood parts counter with the Buchan Binder holding Implement part books used for John Deere equipment. Also displayed wood parts bins, tools and the cash register used from the original business.

There is an overwhelming amount of history to explore in this museum, collected by the Gilsinger family since 1899. Paul and Brenda Gilsinger hope to add a repair shop for the museum. The space originally intended for a shop was quickly consumed by tractors, wagons and collectible equipment. Two warehouses contain the rest of their lawn and garden collection and a variety of the antique tractors used for display.

In the summer months, the museum at 5641 S. Main St., Winamac, is open Sundays from 1-6 p.m., but it is currently closed for the winter season. For more information, you can follow them on Facebook or contact Brenda Gilsinger at 574/595-7851 to make an appointment to visit the museum.

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