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The pioneer of Murdo's Pioneer Auto

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Founder Dave Geisler motors through stroke to keep legendary SD attraction humming.

By: DOUGLAS GLADSTONE, For The Daily Republic

This sign announcing the Pioneer Auto attraction in Murdo is visible to travelers on Interstate 90.

Pioneer Auto Sign

MURDO — Few people rival David A. Geisler for the title of "raconteur." He's the owner of the Pioneer Auto Show and Prairie Town, located off Interstate 90's Exit 192 in Murdo. The attraction has more than 300 vintage cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Visitors quickly learn he is gregarious. How gregarious? Stacked up against Geisler, former President Bill Clinton might be an introvert. "My Dad never met a stranger," says his youngest daughter, Jennifer Kaiser. "He loves people and can talk to anyone about anything. I didn't realize what a talent that was until I got older."

Health scare

Sure, he's got a multi-million dollar business in the least populous county in South Dakota. Sure, he's known all over the state for his work on behalf of the visitor and tourist industry. Sure, he's won so many awards for his commitment to hospitality and customer satisfaction that there aren't enough trophy cases in his home or office to display them all. But strip all his successes away from him, and Dave would still be Dave.

And that's fine with him. "The road to a friend's house," he says, "is never long."

Unfortunately, the hours that he puts in at the Auto Show are. "It is an addiction. It's a way of life for us," admits the septuagenarian.

Regrettably, that addiction may also have helped fuel the series of strokes he suffered less than two years ago, when he couldn't speak for upward of 50 hours.

"You know how frustrating that was for a guy like me?" he asks. "I still had a lot of stuff to sell and things to tell. I suppose everyone has his or her problems, but this was really difficult for me."

Dave's eldest child, daughter Vivian Sonders, agrees it was a painful period for her father.

"He is a man who is filled with such abundant energy that, if you ever told him he absolutely had to retire from working, he'd probably die first," says Vivian, of Burnsville, Minn. "He's tireless, he has so much energy."

A former manager for a women's clothing store in Hastings, Neb., Vivian was the child who worked the most at the family business while growing up.

He hasn't changed much over the years, says Jennifer, of Fayetville, Ga. She recalls growing up with a parent who loved to take his family on trips.

"There was usually not much of a plan," she says. "He was always so much fun when we were on vacation. We would just get in the car and head in any general direction. A two-hour trip could take anywhere from two hours to 10 hours. There were always things to see along the way, historic markers, famous farms, and always people to talk to."

Geisler says that, besides his therapy sessions, what got him through his medical ordeal was his faith in God. "It made me focus on what is really important," he says.

"Most of the time, we couldn't leave the dinner table until we answered a Bible question," Jennifer remembers. "I always knew he expected the best from us, and his desire was for us to be raised in a godly home and to know the Lord."

His children agree that Dave also instilled in them a work ethic that was predicated on earning one's keep in life.

"When I would ask Dad for a quarter, or a dollar, he would always make me go dust cars or pick Coke bottles up," recalls Jennifer. "There was never a handout."

Geisler and his family appreciate their good fortune. He has met sports figures, politicians and Hollywood celebrities galore. He's appeared on the History Channel's "American Pickers" television program. He's traveled abroad. That's why he is the first to acknowledge that he has a lot of reasons to count his blessings. "Whatever we have," he says, "we are greatly blessed."

Born in California

Due to his medical scare, Dave states that, while he may have cut back the hours he now works, ceding some of the operation to his 46-year-old son, David M. Geisler, "I still enjoy coming to work every day. It's our family's passion.

"We work hard to provide a completely unique tourist destination along I-90," he adds. "Anyone who visits the Museum or Prairie Town gets treated with the utmost care and attention. And, though we're not very fancy, we have stuff here you've never seen anywhere else in the world."

It is a passion borne out of an entrepreneurial spirit and love of history that still drives Geisler. Born in Pasadena, Calif., in 1937, he came to South Dakota in 1942 with his parents, Vivian and A.J. "Dick" Geisler, his brother, John, and his sister, Roma, when A.J. traded their house in Pasadena for a farm in Blunt.

In Pasadena, A.J. had been the proprietor of a feed and hardware store and, while business had been good, he was looking for new challenges. But move to South Dakota? What did A.J. know about farming? Especially since there hadn't been a good crop in the state in years. All the locals in Blunt thought A.J. was doomed to fail, according to Dave.

He did not. In 1945, A.J. moved the family again, but this time they relocated to Murdo, which was just 80 miles from their farm in Blunt.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As for Dave, part of his personal history includes going to Bethany Lutheran High School, in Mankato, Minn., for a spell, as well as attending Seward High School, in Seward, Neb., where he excelled on the basketball court. Like his father, Dave could be restless.

But Seward was also where he met his high-school sweetheart. That union, which produced his four children, ended in divorce.

He chalks up the divorce, in part, to his hard-driving personality. From 1962 to 1980, he owned and operated Murdo Ford Mercury, a high-volume auto dealership. "We were one of the top Ford dealers in the state," he says proudly.

"I was very successful, I was on the school board, I was very active in the community," he says "And my marriage suffered."

In 1986, Geisler had a client in Chamberlain he needed to visit. The business trip turned into something more after he met the woman he'd soon marry.

According to Geisler, his current wife, LJ, keeps him on an even keel. "She's really detail oriented," he says, beaming. "And she's an under-the-radar kind of gal." Which suits Geisler just fine, considering his is an oversized, over-the-top personality.

Don't call it a museum

As for the Show, what began as a way for his late father to promote the Phillips 66 gas station and John Deere and Chevrolet dealership he opened in 1950 has evolved into a 10 acre, 42-building site full of exhibits that is renowned for its collection of vintage cars and memorabilia. A.J., who died in 1973, used to park the cars at the gas station in order to entice customers to stop and fill up. One of the cars was a 1913 Ford Peddler's Wagon, which is still on display at the Auto Show.

By 1954, Dave, John and A.J. had so many cars they needed a place to show them properly. So they built their first building.

Just don't call it a museum.

"Museums are considered boring, dusty and free," says Geisler, who helped establish the Visitor Industry Alliance, a political action group for tourism in South Dakota. "We are not a museum. We're an attraction."

It's an attraction that has so far earned him induction into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2004, the Ben Black Elk Award for his promotion of tourism in the state, as well as the 2007 Retailer of the Year Award from the South Dakota Retailers Association. More recently, Pioneer Auto Show won the 2012 George S. Mickelson Great Service award given annually to a South Dakota business or organization that has done an exemplary job of exceeding visitors' expectations in customer service.

It's a reward he doesn't take lightly.

"Tourism is vital to Murdo," says Geisler. As of 2010, the Census Bureau reported there were only 488 people, 237 households and 128 families residing in the city.

"There's only 1,060 people in the entire county," he adds. Other than Geisler's famous attraction, Jones County may best be known for Fort Pierre National Grassland, a federally protected short grass prairie area where part of the Oscar-winning movie "Dances with Wolves" was filmed. "Tourism has always been a natural for us because it's always been important," continues Geisler. "How South Dakota goes, Murdo goes."

Indeed, tourism has a $1.8 billion impact on the state economy, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism. The industry is responsible for more than 27,000 jobs and $270 million in state/local tax revenue.

South Dakota Tourism Secretary James D. Hagen agrees that both Geisler and Pioneer Auto Show are mainstays in the state's tourism industry.

"As one of the 'founding fathers' of tourism in our state, Dave has contributed much to our industry in terms of his unique promotional ideas, his years of service on the Governor's Tourism Advisory Board, and the tremendous service he gives to his customers," Hagen says. "The tourism industry in South Dakota wouldn't be complete without Dave and Pioneer Auto."

'A step back in time'

Though David jokingly refers to his father as a showman and not as South Dakota's unofficial goodwill ambassador, for his part, Dave Geisler doesn't seem to mind. "I don't know if I was a born salesman, but I did sell my first car before I was in my teens," he admits.

According to Dave, when he was just 9 years old, he set up a bicycle sales and repair business in his father's car dealership. When he was subsequently left alone to tend to the phones one day, the young Dave made that first sale.

"Cars bring back one's memories," said David, whose own son turns 1 year old this month. "There's a commonality in it for people, just like football or any other shared interest. Memories of history are fun and people always remember the first car they ever drove or owned."

"It's a step back in time," agrees Dave.

While classic cars are the Show's bread and butter, the Geisler family has acquired many other treasures. Their trove of chotchkies features corncob pipes, door knobs, oil cans, typewriters, old magazine ads, posters, signs, news clippings, slot machines, potbelly stoves and countless other collectibles.

The Show's Prairie Town area offers visitors a chance to walk through a Midwestern, turn of the century town, complete with railroad depot, the original Murdo Bank, a blacksmith shop, livery barn, jail house and general store. But the main focus of the Show's historic old town is a restored wood-frame gas station originally built in 1930 by the Gurney Seed Company, of Yankton.

A self-described "low-tech kind of guy," Geisler has never ceased to be amazed by all the technological advances the world has experienced. "I mean, look at how far we've come in just the last quarter of a century alone," he says. "Twenty-five years ago, we didn't use a fax machine, we didn't have the Internet. And look how important those things are in our lives now.

"We are the stewards of history," he says.

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