ST. CLOUD, Minn. (WCCO) — Roy Bernick built his career selling Pepsi products all across central Minnesota. But in retirement, you’ll find his true passion inside a huge garage. Step through the doors and you will find vintage automobiles and trucks of every make, model and style — each neatly parked in straight rows.
“Yeah, it drives nice, I think it’s got 38 horsepower,” Bernick said, as he walks up to a 1917 automobile.
It’s the one car in particular that carries special meaning to him.
“They were made right here in St. Cloud,” Bernick said.
In a sprawling factory on the west side of town, Sam Pandolfo designed and built the Pan automobile. Between 1917 and 1920, the area near 33rd Avenue North and Third Street was akin to a little Detroit. It wasn’t long before the area became known as Pantown.
Though much of this period in the city’s history has long been forgotten, a street nearby still bears Pandolfo’s name.
“He was a clever guy, he had lots of ideas,” Bernick said.
One of those ideas included the installation of a tool box and ice chest in the rear of the car.
“You put ice in here, food in there,” Bernick said, as he raises the steel lid.
It’s clear that his cars were designed for a life on the open road. In the early years of automobile travel, gas stations and services were far between and car owners had to be self sufficient. In many respects, Pandolfo’s cars appeared more advanced, sleek and luxurious than those coming out of Henry Ford’s Dearborn plants.
Pans were even designed to serve as overnight accommodations, with seats that fully reclined.
“With the folding down bed, you don’t have to rush to a hotel at the time. Pan was like an early motor home. It was great, very comfortable sleeping too,” Bernick said.
It seemed Pan’s were taking off with consumers. In St. Cloud, homes were being built for factory workers and Pantown appeared to be booming. That was until Pandolfo got caught up in a stock fraud case that Pantowners, like Bernick, say was largely built on trumped up federal charges. Nevertheless, he was convicted of stock fraud and sent to prison.
With Pandolfo in prison his company would go belly up. Only 756 of the dream cars would roll off his assembly line before the factory doors were shuttered. Eventually, Pandolfo got out of prison and would later move to Alaska, where he began exploring for oil. He died in Alaska in 1960 and was buried there in a local cemetery.
That’s where the story is about to take a sudden turn. Pantowners like Paul Hunstiger, say Pandolfo never intended to be buried so far from the city where his dream was made. They say he made it clear to family members it was his wish to return to St. Cloud.
“His great-grandson saw a newspaper article that said his wish was to be buried here in St. Cloud. This was in 1926,” Hunstiger said.
So fellow Pantowners Hunstiger and Bernick have set out to make Pandolfo’s wish come true. In a cemetery plot not far from the old Pan factory, Pandolfo and his true legacy will finally come to rest.
“And we have his ashes here and the stone is on the way back,” said Hunstiger, holding tightly to the small box containing Pandolfo’s ashes.
On Friday, Aug. 19, the Pantowners will gather at the local Stearns County Museum and say a few kind words about Pandolfo’s contributions to the city.
Then, they plan to place his ashes in one of his cars and take him for his final ride.
“We have the last car he rode in, that he’s gonna get his last ride in from here to the cemetery,” Hunstiger said.
It seems a fitting tribute for a dreamer and doer. More importantly, a long overdue honor to an entrepreneur who gave St. Cloud a car to be proud of.