Gerdes Auto Wreckers Traces Roots 100 Years
PHOTO: RICK TANG
Lynn Deyarmond loves to tell funny stories about the man she affectionately calls “my Papa.”
“He has a beautiful personality,” she said. “He’s just a little strange at times.”
There’s the time he noticed a dead bird on his desk, casually pushed it off to the side, and calmly continued working, Deyarmond recalled.
“That’s just how my Papa is,” she added. “Nothing bothers him. Nothing worries him.”
Lynn’s Papa is Gary Gerdes, owner of Gerdes Auto Wreckers in Cloverdale, Calif. The company has been in business since 1956, and Gerdes - despite his quirks - has been running it since 1970.
Gerdes Auto Wreckers specializes in parts for classic vehicles, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s. It’s the only yard in northern California that specializes in classic parts, and it ships to customers throughout the United States. Gerdes said he also works closely with other wrecking yards that don’t carry vintage pieces.
“If I do get late-model cars in here, I sell to other wrecking yards,” he explained.
Gerdes Auto Wreckers can trace its history back nearly 100 years. Gerdes’s grandfather, Gearhart Gerdes, moved to California after the Alaska Gold Rush, where he met and married Johanna Leaderman, a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The couple purchased the property now occupied by Gerdes Auto Wreckers in the early 1920s. Gearhart ranched, operated a vineyard, repaired wagon wheels and even ran moonshine from the property.
Gearhart and Johanna’s son, Stan, grew up with a passion for vintage cars and trucks. Stan got his auto dismantler license in 1956, and Gerdes Auto Wreckers was born.
“My papa was born and raised into it, and as he was growing up, he got a passion for older trucks and cars,” Lynn said.
Gary took over the business in 1970 when Stan was diagnosed with cancer. Stan passed away in 1972 and Gary has been running the company ever since.
Gerdes Auto Wreckers is well known in the small town of Cloverdale, Lynn said.
“This is a very tiny, very small country town, very quaint,” she admitted. “The history of this family goes way back. The Gerdes family is well known. (Gary) is very well liked and very well respected, not just in the town but by the industry.”
For decades, Gary ran the business side-by-side with his wife, Judy. Gerdes Auto Wreckers had always carried a large number of classic parts, so in the mid-1980s, the couple decided to specialize.
“My wife and I were specializing since way back,” Gary explained. “We did realize there was a niche for that, and we realized we didn’t need later-model cars for parts.”
Judy was an instrumental part of the business; she ran the office and oversaw inventory, shipping and receiving. She was also active in the local community. She oversaw the building of floats for town parades, wrote articles for the community newspaper and wrote children’s stories that she’d read to the local kids, who called her “Grandma Judy.”
Judy became extremely ill four years ago and passed away two years later. It was a terrible loss for Gary, his family and the business.
“It was a few years of hell for my papa, and the yard almost shut down at that point,” Lynn said. “He put everything on the back burner to oversee her care. He’s gone through a lot in the past four years, and we’re starting to pick up the pieces here.”
Deyarmond, who is a nurse, stepped in to help. She works in the office two days a week and also cares for Gary’s elderly mother, who requires round-the-clock care. Deyarmond’s son, Steven, helps in the yard and serves as the “computer nerd.”
The company just got a computer two years ago, she added.
“My Papa doesn’t know how to turn it on,” she laughed. “If it doesn’t require a wrench, he’s like a bull in a china shop.”
Gerdes Auto Wreckers is also home to about 20 mules, which graze on the property. Deyarmond said each one has a name and a unique personality.
“(Gary’s) passion is his babies - his mules,” she said. “It’s like having a beloved cat or dog. These are his pets.”
The company has no paid employees, and Deyarmond is blunt: The yard isn’t pretty.
“This is not the typical wrecking yard you see in present day,” she said. “The new wrecking yards with the beautiful operating system, the nice office - that’s not the way it works here. It’s the typical yard from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s an older man’s heaven.”
“Nothing is organized, nothing is segregated,” she added. “Our inventory list is in Papa’s brain. God knows what you’ll find here. “
How, then, is the business able to survive? Lynn credits Gary’s “old-school values.”
“He’s a typical old-school gentleman,” she said. “He’s got those old-school values. His word is his honor, and he’s a man of integrity and morals. People who know him know that. He’s very family oriented. He will give up anything for family in the blink of an eye.”
Lynn said he has tried talking Gary into closing the yard and taking some time to relax.
“But I know in my heart, he’s not going to do it,” she said. “It’s in his blood.”
“It’s my whole life,” he said. “It isn’t just a job. It’s my passion.”