Author John Dominik looks through "Pictorial Proof of Progress" put out by the Pan Motor Company at his home in Sartell. Dominik took a longtime fascination with the local automotive legend of Sam Pandolfo and turned it into a book exploring the company and the controversy that surrounded Pandolfo's life. (Times photo by Kimm Anderson)

10 May, 2003
Book chronicles Pandolfo
Marty Sundvall
Staff Writer
St. Cloud Times


Chapter One of John Dominik's book is titled "The Best Salesman I Ever Knew." Dominik of Sartell, MN cites W.H. Vernor, founder of the Texas Motor Car Association, who tells the story of how, in the early 1900s, Samuel Pandolfo sold a $400 insurance policy to a man who never intended to buy insurance.

The tale is just one of many stories about Pandolfo in Dominik's book "The Legend of Sam Pandolfo, Minnesota's Pan Motor Car and Its Legacy." The book tells the story of Pandolfo and how he was able to create a manufacturing company and a small city in what is now St. Cloud's near Northwest side.

In 1917, Samuel Pandolfo came to St. Cloud with the dream of creating an automobile industry to rival Detroit. In one year during World War I, he constructed a full factory, his own water tower, built more than 50 houses, a community hall and even had the city of St. Cloud install a sewer system during the height of the war. "What I'm amazed at is mainly the size of the plant and everything he was able to build in a year's time," Dominik said. "The drop forge plant was huge, and considering that this was done while World War I was going on was incredible. He had his own water tower and the fact that he got the city to install a sewer system at that time was something."

But the legacy of Pandolfo is clouded. Dominik provides a great biographical perspective of Pandolfo: the birth and the ultimate death of the company he created in St. Cloud, his trial for fraud before Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Pandolfo's endeavors after the Pan car's demise and Pandolfo's death in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he went to find new business ventures at the age of 85.

Though he interviewed and met dozens of people who knew or worked with Pandolfo, Dominik himself never met the maker of about 750 Pan Motor Cars.

"If I could meet him and ask one question, I'd have to ask what happened to all those cars?" Dominik said.

Learn on the go

Dominik, 80, knows how to write. He was a one-person staff at the old St. Cloud Sentinal newspaper, acting as the writer and photographer. He also was the ad manager for the Liturgical Press at St. John's University. History, though, is just something he liked. "History is not a vocation, but an avocation," Dominik said.

The idea for the book was sparked when he talked with Roy Bernick of Waite Park in about 1968. Bernick has a collection of about 30 cars, including a vintage Pan car. Bernick asked questions during the meeting with Dominik, questions concerning what really happened with the company. "(Pandolfo) did so many good things for St. Cloud. I don't think many know just how much he did," Bernick said.

That also was the time when the manager of the Liturgical Press was looking for books of local interest. Though he knew how to write, Dominik said he had to learn much more to complete the project.

"I was so stupid when I started this. I thought I would do the research (on Pandolfo) in the summer and then write in the fall," Dominik said. "But I didn't have any of the chronology. By the following spring, I was just learning how do to research."

For 35 years, he picked away at the research, working on the manuscript mostly during weekends. He corresponded with libraries across the country by mail; in his living room in the house on the bank of the Mississippi River are several boxes of postage-marked research that Dominik will donate to the Stearns History Museum.

He started the project before the local historical society was running, so he traveled to the Minnesota Historical Society in the Twin Cities many times to look through stacks of St. Cloud newspapers. He would bring a tape recorder and dictate what was written, then return home to transcribe the tapes.

He conducted many interviews with people who knew Pandolfo or worked for the Pan Motor Company in St. Cloud. One of the key people he encountered was Victor Gauvreau, a German citizen who served as Pandolfo's chief automobile designing engineer. Gauvreau came to the United States to get work experience, but was then "trapped" in the country after World War I started. He met Gauvreau when he returned to the United States for a visit.

The interviews also gave Dominik an unintended lesson.

"The tapes, I would (record) over them again. That was stupid. I should have kept them and donated them to the historical society," said Dominik, a 1946 graduate of St. John's University. "Next time I'll learn."

35 years later

Thirty five years later, Dominik had a manuscript that was oh-so-close to ready. But he continued to gather information, either from his own queries or from people who would just offer things that they have discovered. Plus, at that time, there was seemingly no where to go with the manuscript.

Dominik has given several talks about the Pan Motor Company at the Stearns History Museum. But one talk last November led to something more.

"Normally I talk too much, but this time I thought I would only give a base outline of (Pandolfo) and have people ask questions. They were asking 'why don't you write a book?'" Dominik said. "I thought, 'If I don't get it published soon, I'd go door to door and read it to anyone who wanted to listen.'"

The next day Jim Blommer from Park Press Printing in Waite Park called, inquiring about Dominik's manuscript. Dominik said Blommer took a look at the manuscript and gave it the green light.

But even while the type was being set, Dominik was still adding information. Finally, in early April, the book rolled off the press.

"When I first saw it, all I thought was 35 years of work went into this. Wow," Dominik said. "If anyone comes up with more information now, I don't want it!"

The entire story of the Pan Motor Company and Pandolfo himself are revealed in the 319-page book. It includes not only 35 years of Dominik's research, but much anecdotal information about Pandolfo -- both the good and the bad.

The book also tries to answer whether or not Pandolfo was railroaded in his fraud trial and wrongly sent to prison.

"I don't think he should have gone to prison. He made a valid reason for everything he did," Dominik said. "I have talked to some modern day judges and the evidence used to convict him would have never been allowed today."