Pub. 63 2021-2022 Issue 1

Selling, Service and Civic Leadership: An Interview with Milton Crenwelge

Raised in the automotive industry, Milton Crenwelge is now the family business patriarch. The longtime owner and operator of the Crenwelge Automotive Group, Milton has been a business and civic leader in Fredericksburg for decades. At the Gillespie County Fair, he appeared as Grand Marshal in the Gillespie County Fair Parade. He gave us insight into this honor and explained more about his distinguished career. (Edited for clarity and length.)

Since this was the second time he acted as the Parade’s Grand Marshal, we asked him about the first time. He said it was back in 1948 — when he was 15 years old — and the town had actually closed down the highway because the parade headed to his new dealership location. “I got to drive the first new car from the east end [of town] to the west,” he said, stating he was accompanied by the high school band.

Next, we asked about how his company, Crenwelge Automotive, began. He said it was started as a gas station by his father in 1927, where they did vehicle services and repairs. “And then we got into selling cars in the 1940s. We got the first franchise in 1940. However, when World War II broke out, we didn’t have any new cars for four-and-a-half years. But luckily, with the service station and repair business, through those years, we were able to keep the business going.” Crenwelge said the war-years shortages and business changes were similar to what they endured with the coronavirus pandemic, and that the more recent difficulties getting vehicles because of microchip shortages had “sort of prepared” him and his staff on how to survive.

Moving on, we talked to Milton about the actual history of the Crenwelge Automotive Group and how it all began. In downtown Fredericksburg, on the 100 block of East Main — also known as Dooley’s Block — there were 28 service stations and eight new car dealerships before and after World War II. And then came the franchised car dealers. In those days, Chrysler had three divisions — Chrysler, Dodge and DeSoto — and each had Plymouth, so there were three Plymouth dealers on one block across the street from Dooley’s. “There was Joseph Brothers Dodge-Plymouth,” Milton said. “A few doors up next to the publishing company, Standard Service was Chrysler-Plymouth, and we were at the end of that same block with DeSoto-Plymouth. That was a huge part of the local economy. Nobody got rich, but everybody made a living because you worked 16 hours a day and looked out for each other.

Milton stated, “Back then, our first location was across the street from where the Walmart is today. There was the Fredericksburg Tourist Park, and next to its entrance was a service station with a little house attached. And that’s where my dad started the service station and auto repairs in 1927. Then in ’34, he moved midtown to the 100 block of Main. This second location was located where the Christmas Store is now housed on the southeast corner of Llano and Main. In 1948, he moved to the 400 block, and in 2001, we moved to the 800 block.”

Milton told us he started working for his father when he was 10 years old. He remembered that at age 10, his father told him to watch the driveway of the service station on the corner of Main and Llano. Two hours later, his father returned and told Milton, “You have a new brother.” Along with new baby brother Ruben, Jr., Milton grew up with three sisters and another brother, Marvin. While Marvin is still at the company, they lost Ruben a few years back.

“But all three of us worked in the business,” Milton said. “Ruben was our service manager for 52 years. And I think that’s what helped make our business because you had one member of the family just as interested in service as you did in selling.”

It’s quite extraordinary to have a family business as long as the Crenwelge’s. We were curious about the company’s succession from father to sons and so on to the next generation. “My dad had heart trouble,” Milton recounted, “and he passed away at the young age of 56. I think I was 28.

“In those days,” he continued, “a woman couldn’t be a car dealer; it was just a different time. So, we continued working and [when] they finally renewed the dealership franchise, my mother was the owner, but they made me the dealer because I was a male, and I became a dealer at the age of 28. I kept it in the family.”

And in keeping it in the family, Milton’s two sons also have been involved in the business. “They grew up in it just like I did,” Milton said. “And, of course, I tried to instill what my dad taught me.” Milton’s father would relay that some things never go out of style: good business ethics, good morals, good principles, and honesty. At one point after World War II, a customer offered to pay an extra $100 to be moved up on the delivery list ahead of other customers. “But we told him we didn’t work that way, and we’re still here.”

In 1979, Crenwelge Automotive Group acquired the Kerrville dealership. Milton told us he liked how the gentleman who owned that particular dealership ran it and that he was a good dealer. However, he was at the age where he was looking to retire. He had two sons — one was a doctor, and the other liked the parts business but didn’t want to sell cars. So Crenwelge added this dealership to their group and expanded the family business.

Part of owning and running a dealership means sometimes running into people with celebrity status. At one point in his storied career, Milton helped Willie Nelson trade in his Jeep. Another time, Bob Hope came to Fredericksburg as the entertainment for a grand opening of some sort. “His twin-engine plane had to use Lyndon Johnson’s runway in Stonewall,” Milton told us. “The Fair Association asked me (and two or three of us Jaycees) if I could furnish a car and go down and pick him up. You know, we had this brand-new Chrysler New Yorker with a white vinyl roof and leather seats. We all wanted his signature, but I didn’t have any paper. He walks over and says, ‘Your car?’ And he writes ‘Bob Hope’ on the roof! The next morning a lady came in and traded in her Imperial. Some of her friends had one of the Lincoln Towncar Signature Series, and now she had a ‘Bob Hope Special.’”

We finished our interview with Milton talking about some of the classic cars he owns and if he has any favorites. He told us, “My favorite would be my 1940 DeSoto custom convertible because that was the first year we became a new franchised dealer. My dad never got to sell a DeSoto convertible in Fredericksburg. Not in 1940. But it’s a beautiful car.”

As Grand Marshal of the Gillespie County Fair Parade, Milton Crenwelge rode once again — smiling and waving at the crowd — with that 1940 DeSoto because, as he told us, “It’s a beautiful car for a parade.” 

1956 Centennial Anniversary Parade for Kerr County. My Dad provided a new 1956 DeSoto Coupe for the “Tap & Toe Dance Studio” where my Mom was the dance instructor. They were dating at the time and not yet married. The young girl next to Mom was Donna Faye Friedrich and her mother, Ruby, one of the owners of the dance studio.

Fredericksburg Parade shows our second location on Main Street in the 100 block. Our family gas station and dealership are shown at upper right.

1946 Centennial Parade of Fredericksburg

Milton Crenwelge won a trip to Washington DC in 1960 for his outstanding sales volume with Plymouths in 1959.

Mom (Mickey) and Dad with the 1940 DeSoto.

The third Crenwelge Motors dealership located in the 400 block of Main Street where Milton led the parade to its “Grand Opening” in 1948.

Crenwelge Used Cars circa 1950

The Crenwelge dealership/gas station located at the corner of Main and Llano in the 100 block from 1934 until 1948.

Mary Crenwelge and her three sons, Milton, Ruben Jr and Marvin.

The dealership after DeSoto was dropped and before Jeep was added in 1963 followed by Chrysler in 1965.

Front to back: Milton, his granddaughter Katherine, grandson Jon, grandson Aaron and son Tim.

Milton Crenwelge, 2022 Grand Marshall standing next the Crenwelge parade float with their 1940 DeSoto.