All in the family

Jacob Lane · Wednesday, January 24, 2018
H.D.Cline, named after its founder Hubert D. Cline in 1937, celebrated its 80th year in the Cline family in 2017.

“It’s just getting bigger and bigger,” says Brent Phelps, one of four family share holders that began with the West Liberty based business back in 2007.

“The equipment is just getting so big it keeps taking up all of the shop space that we need,” he says. “It’s hard to have doors big enough for everything.”

You see, back in October of 1936, Everett E. (EE) Cline noticed that Iowa City didn’t have an International Harvester Company (IHC) dealer, so he moved his family there.

A year later his son, Hubert D. Cline, moved 16 miles east into West Liberty and opened an IHC dealer of his own, in partnership with he father.

Thus, in the 1930s and 1940s community members traded in horses to H.D. Cline for the latest in IHC tractors and agricultural technology.

While more powerful than the common horse, the equipment back then was much smaller. In fact, many of the tractors were hardly larger than the horses they replaced.

That’s no longer the case. Massive combines loom within the walls of West Liberty’s Case IH Agricultural and Farm equipment dealership.

H.D. Cline continues to expand, especially at its primary location of 110 North Columbus Street in West Liberty, but it never seems to be quite enough room.

The business has three locations. Headquartered in West Liberty it also has a location in Tipton and a lawn and garden retail outlet in Iowa City

But what’s more impressive than the massive equipment they deal with is the fact that 80 years later ownership still sits solely in the Cline family.

The Cline Legacy

Starting in 1959, lifetime community member Bill Cline dedicated 58 years to H.D. Cline before he passed away on Nov. 12, 2017.

He and his wife Kay poured everything they had into the business. The same can now be said of their children, and owners, Fay and Mike.

While Mike Cline is now a store manager at the Tipton location, Fay Cline keeps busy in the West Liberty location along with her son Brent Phelps.

Accordingly the shares of H.D. Cline are held by Kay Cline, since the passing of her husband Bill, as well as their children Mike and Fay and their grandson Brent.

“I think it’s neat, I’m proud to say that I can continue to carry on the legacy,” says Fay. “I’m very proud to say that I worked with my mom where she worked.”

Fay is more of the numbers guru at H.D. Cline. She admits that her version of fun, like filling out government forms, may seem a little odd to other people.

However, she loves the fact that she does what her mother Kay Cline did for years before retiring in 2016, and her grandmother before that.

Fay came back on at H.D. Cline around 1994, while her brother Mike Cline has been a part of the family business since he started working as a janitor in the 1970s.

H.D. Cline was obviously a big part of their life before they worked there, as was West Liberty in general, thanks to their father Bill Cline.

“Community service, when dad wasn’t home he was off doing everything. He just always wanted to be a part of something and help out,” says Fay.

Bill and Bob Cline were sole partners at H.D. Cline until Bob sold his shares to Bill Yearington in 1976. Those shares eventually found their way back in to the family.

Bill Cline was born in Washington, Iowa in 1932, eventually finding himself in West Liberty in the late 1930s thanks to his father.

Over the years Bill was involved with everything, including Jaycees, Lion’s Club, city council and the Muscatine County Fairgrounds.

He also served the West Liberty Fire Department for 58 years, retiring in 2015 at the age of 82. However, he never really retired from H.D. Cline.

His office still sits in the back, filled with photos and memorabilia of the years he spent on his business and on his community.

He was a no nonsense, straight to the point, character.

“He was one that if he was going to complain about something he wanted to do something about it, he didn’t just want to sit back and be a sounding board,” recalls grandson Brent Phelps.

While his father Hubert D. Cline may have started the business, Bill Cline became the heart and soul of it all. He cared a lot about the community, and in response the community cared a lot about him and his business.

“I can remember when the fair parade was dying out in the late 1970s, so he started contacting friends with tractors and really built it all up,” says Fay.

“He was in charge of that fair parade for years, plus he got Pat Farlinger to help him,” she adds. “The Chamber takes it over now, but before the Chamber contacted him for help.”

It may have been that community involvement that helped H.D. Cline survive the farming crisis of the 1980s.

Farmers were hit by an economic disaster more severe than anything they had seen before since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Those who relied on agriculture faced financial ruin.

The worst of it was in the midwest, but it slowly rippled out to the rest of the United States.

“It was hard, we struggled to keep the door open, to stay alive. Some dealerships around us closed,” says Fay.

“What kept us alive? I’d like to think it was ‘Service after the Sail,’ we had loyal costumers that came back,” she says.

Service after the Sail used to be the tagline for H.D. Cline. It appears it may also be the reason the business exists to this day.

H.D. Cline Today and Tomorrow

The company, which specializes in Case IH agriculture equipment, averages around 25 employees a year. That’s a good number for a small-ish business.

H.D. Cline sells and repairs equipment in Muscatine and Cedar County, as well as parts of Johnson and Louisa County. That’s their assigned ‘Sales and Service Area’ according to Case IH.

“With it being a rural community we have a lot of agricultural inclined people,” says Brent Phelps.

“To be able to have something local, so they don’t have to travel to a larger city, that they can fill their needs and continue to do their day-to-day jobs is what we’re here for,” he says.

The business has played a big role in West Liberty agricultural since it opened in the 1930s.The equipment it sells has never been limited to tractors and combines.

That being said, there’s a good chance many local farm families got their first mechanized farm equipment at H.D. Cline.

The business opened up in 1937 in downtown West Liberty, where Wink’s Bar and Grill is located today. Half of the building had a dirt floor for a stable.

“They took horses in on trade for farm equipment,” says Brent, “Then the horses were sold on auction.”

From the back alley behind the building employees could take tractors down into the basement.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that H.D. Cline moved its epicenter to its current location on Columbus Street.

They purchased a building that was originally a car dealership. You wouldn’t know it any more, the building has been re-modified several times since then to expand the business.

Across the street is a combine shed, which made Index headlines in 2013 after it caught fire on July 4 thanks to stray fireworks.

H.D. Cline not only completely rebuilt the shed, but doubled it in size.

They also have open land along Highway 6 as drivers enter West Liberty, where extra equipment will sit if they don’t have the space.

It seems H.D. Cline has become so ingrained into the community, it’s just kind-of hard to imagine West Liberty without it.

“To me it was dad,” says Fay about Bill Cline. “He worked hard, was friends with everybody and helped you if he could.”

And what about that Cline legacy?

“Being the fifth generation puts some added pressure,” says Brent Phelps. “We are coming in behind a huge legacy, it’s been run successfully for 81 years now.”

In a way, H.D. Cline has always been on the cutting edge of agricultural technology, whether that be the first tractors of the 1930s to the self driving combines of today.

“When I first came on it was maybe 1 in 10 farmers, but today 100 percent of anything we sell has some sort of technology,” adds Brent.

If Hubert D. Cline, or his father E.E. Cline, could see what the family business has become today they may not recognize it, but they certainly would be proud.
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