Olsen Marine and Sporting Goods

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Written by Tom Olsen

I know that many of our readers are boating enthusiasts. Whether it be fishing boats, sport boats, personal watercraft, or sail boats, it seems everything is done on a grand scale these days. From mega-stores like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops to your locally-owned dealerships, the boating choices are endless. The marine industry is ever-changing and state of the art, and has been for many years. But here’s a look back to a simpler time in the marine and sporting goods business.

In the early 1950s my father, Don Olsen, was a traveling salesman for an automotive supply company. But with a young family, he longed to “get off the road” and find work that would keep him closer to home.  Ernie’s Auto and Sporting Goods was a small combination auto repair shop and boat and motor business located at 1315 South Cliff Avenue in Sioux Falls. Ernie Olson (no relation) decided to sell his business in 1955, and this was just the opportunity for which my dad was looking. Somehow he convinced my mom, and a local banker, that he could make a go of it and he bought the business. Dad was a very personable man, a heck of a salesman, and a hard worker, but with no business ownership experience at all, this was a big step!

When the business was purchased, Aluma Craft and Glaspar were the boat lines carried; Evinrude was the outboard motor line. Dad eliminated the auto repair aspect of the business but “jumped in with both feet” to the marine and sporting goods lines. In addition to his boat and motor lines, he added a wide range of marine accessories. A small assortment of fishing tackle, as well as guns and hunting equipment, followed in short order. Early on, an additional employee was needed to assist with sales and other tasks, and Ned Hone was hired.  Ned enjoyed hunting and fishing, and was a perfect fit for the business.

After a full-time mechanic was hired, there was a steady flow of outboard motors being serviced and repaired. Harold Paulson, the mechanic, was an old-school mechanic who could repair just about anything that came through the door. I can remember as an 8 or 9-year-old kid sorting through the junk parts pile trying to piece something together that resembled a motor and asking Harold if he thought it might run. He was always good humored enough to tell me he thought I might be making progress and to keep at it. I guess that was one way to keep me out from underfoot…

By about 1959, the business had outgrown the small Quonset building on South Cliff, and the property at 2223 West 12th Street was secured. This building offered a huge amount of additional space plus additional buildings to the rear for storage and service areas. The boat lines were expanded with the addition of Pipestone, Glastron, Switzer Craft, and Lund boats. Mercury Outboards were added to the outboard motor line. The marine accessory, fishing, and hunting departments all were greatly expanded. By now, the business had a full-time bookkeeper, a few full and part-time sales people, and a staff of mechanics. By the early 1960s, I was there regularly after school and on weekends helping out in the parts department or doing assembly tasks.

Dad was quite the promoter, and there was always a spring boat show where all the new lines would be displayed. Manufacturer’s representatives from many of the lines would be on hand for several days to promote their product and lend extra sales assistance. Many years, a large tent was set up in a vacant lot across the street where additional boats, motors, trailers, boat lifts and docks were displayed out of the weather. The spring boat show was always one of the highlights of the year.

Once again, by 1965, the business had outgrown its location. It was then that the property at 5513 West 12th Street was purchased. At the time some folks questioned if people would regularly drive that far out of town to shop a sporting goods store. After all, this was about two blocks west of Marion Road! (Now, the Sioux Falls city limit extends a few more miles farther west.) People did come, though, and the move was a wise one.

The marine industry was undergoing many advancements by now and “stern drives” or “inboard-outboards” were becoming commonplace. Boat companies themselves were seeing changes as some smaller companies folded, or were acquired by larger corporations. As things progressed through the ‘70s, we also started to see the corporate packaging of boats, motors, and trailers as some companies began marketing complete, pre-assembled packages. Some of the product lines Olsen Marine carried varied over the next many years as franchise requirements sometimes dictated what could be carried with their product. Major boat lines carried over the years included Glastron (our staple for many years), Larson, Crestliner, and Lund. Due to corporate pressure, we eventually gave up Mercury Outboards and stayed with Evinrude, which was our primary line from day one.

Olsen Marine evolved into a major business over the years. All departments and product lines expanded throughout the 1970s. Dad prided himself in offering one-stop shopping when it came to marine and sporting goods. Customers from back in the day often said, “If you can’t find it at Olsen Marine, you don’t need it!” Honest dealing and top-quality products were his other strong suit. When he had the option of carrying a lesser (cheaper) product over a known quality product, Dad always opted for the better product.

I worked in the business all through the years except for a three-year stint in the Army (1967-70), but, by the late 1970s it was a different business climate than it had been in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Huge nationwide sporting goods operations and mail order sales were fierce competition for a family-owned business. By 1979 I determined that a career in law enforcement suited me better than retail business ownership, and I began my career with the Sioux Falls Police Department. A few years later, Dad was ready to retire and sold the business.

For years a sign hung over the front door that said “Our Business is FUN”, and it was. I’m pleased to have been involved in the marine business in Sioux Falls in the early years, and also to have experienced the business and the customer relationships Olsen Marine and Sporting Goods made along the way. It really was a different time.

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