John Pederson of Chippewa Falls works 80 hours per week.
Seven days a week, he drives a 2002 Buick to John’s Auto Parts on Columbia Street. It’s the same commute he’s made for 50 years.
Pederson, now 75, has owned and operated the Chippewa Falls store since he bought it at the age of 25. John’s Auto Parts weathered a move in 1976 — from 41 East Columbia to 212 East Columbia — and has stayed one of the few independently-owned auto parts stores in the area.
Pederson is a very familiar face to his customers. He’s been serving some local families for generations.
“I used to have high school kids come in,” Pederson said. “Now, that 15-year-old is 65. And they still come in.”
While the auto parts business has changed — engines run for 200,000 miles, instead of 50,000, and the days of selling hundreds of specialty chrome wheels and accessories are in the past — Pederson sees the same kinds of customers he always has. He sells to high school students, car enthusiasts, walk-in locals and even some garages, he said.
In 1966, when the Air Force veteran and Benson, Minn., native started looking for an auto parts store to buy, he started the search in his home state.
But Pederson doesn’t regret moving to the “green grass and hills” of the Chippewa Valley after buying the Chippewa Falls Acme Auto Parts Napa store two years later.
“The wife and I have said many times, we wonder why our grandparents didn’t stop (to settle) in Wisconsin,” Pederson laughed.
He didn’t know a single person in Chippewa Falls when he moved. It was just the second time he’d been to the city, he said.
In December of that first year, Pederson promptly sold his eggshell-blue Chevy Camaro convertible — “I couldn’t haul parts in it,” he remembers — and bought a station wagon. (A photo of Pederson in that convertible hangs on the wall above the cash register, courtesy of Pederson’s wife, Arlene.)
Pederson bought a second store in Hudson six years later, but sold it to his manager in 1979.
“I asked the wife, ‘Where do you want to live, Chippewa Falls or Hudson?’” Pederson said. “She said, ‘I think I’ll stay in Chippewa.’”
For decades after, Pederson made a name for himself, serving on the board of Northwestern Bank and watching his three children graduate from Chippewa Falls Senior High School.
All three eventually worked at the store. Penny Thalacker of Minnesota, Pederson’s oldest daughter, delivered auto parts in the summers of high school.
“Some of my friends used to call him ‘Smiling John,’” Thalacker remembered. “He’s just a happy guy.”
Pederson was the “easiest boss I’ve ever worked for, probably to a fault,” said Pederson’s son Oliver, who now lives in Florida. “He would never be upset with anyone, really.”
All three of Pederson’s children tell stories of seemingly everyone in Chippewa Falls knowing their father — but him only knowing their face, having sold them a part for their car.
At the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, many people still greet Pederson by name, Thalacker said.
“It’s refreshing to hear that about your parent,” Thalacker said. “Look at all these people he knows. It’s amazing.”
Pederson himself has a few local guardian angel stories to tell.
In a blizzard in the 1980s, Pederson was driving home on Highway 178 when he pulled off the road, seeing snow drifting too high to drive through.
A man on a snowmobile pulled up, called Pederson by name, and gave him a ride to his front door, about a mile away.
“I got off, thanked him and he drove away,” Pederson remembered. “I thought, he’ll come in the store and I’ll find out who it is. Nobody’s ever mentioned it to me. I still don’t know who the guy was.”
Years later, Pederson’s Ford was stalled on Highway 178 when more mysterious helpers appeared.
“I was trying to crank (the engine), when all of a sudden there’s four guys there,” Pederson said. “They shoved me into a parking lot, ran back to their cars on the highway and they were gone.”
Thalacker and Oliver Pederson don’t believe their father has plans to retire. Pederson himself denies it.
“If anybody asks me, that’s what I’ll say,” he said, grinning behind the cash register Thursday. “‘As soon as you buy me out, I’ll retire.’”
In his children’s eyes, Pederson’s work ethic and dedication “isn’t human.”
“He works every single day. It’s insane. I can barely ever remember him being sick,” Thalacker said. “The store is his love.”
Pederson praises his employees for the store’s longtime presence. Three — Milford Newman, Keith Wooley and Roger Yanke — have worked for Pederson for over 20 years.
Pederson, ever modest, still wonders at the name recognition his store has around town.
“When people are on the phone in the store, they’ll say, ‘I’m down at John’s,’” Pederson said. “I think, ‘How does the wife know where John’s is?’ I always get a kick out of that.”
To celebrate the 50-year anniversary of John’s Auto Parts, Pederson’s family is holding a Saturday, Sept. 29, celebration at the store from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A food truck will be offering eats, and customers, friends and the public are welcome.