Entrepreneurs / Small Business  May 20, 2011

Joe’s Upholstery continues downtown legacy

FORT COLLINS – Joe Cienfuegos’ journey from Mexico to Fort Collins spanned nine decades and included working in the beet fields of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, fighting in war-torn Europe and miserable captivity as a German prisoner of war.

But nothing could stop him on his road to success that eventually resulted in the founding of his own auto upholstery business in downtown Fort Collins in 1945. It’s a business that goes on under his son, Richard, following Joe’s death on April 14 at age 90.

Richard, 65, is proud of his father and the legacy he left behind as a successful businessman.

“He started from nothing and he worked hard and he did well,” Richard said. “He taught me everything I ever knew – how to weld, how to sew – and I’ve made a good living with my hands.”

The auto upholstery business is not as busy as it once was, of course. People aren’t as likely to get their vehicles reupholstered the way they used to do in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. But there’s still a steady stream of business for collectible vehicles and those who would rather renew the interior of their vehicle than just trade it in for a whole new one.

Came to pick beets with family

Richard said Joe moved to the United States when he was very young.

“His family was contracted to pick sugar beets here and in Wyoming and Nebraska,” he said. “They needed the laborers from Mexico and that’s why they were here. Once they got here, they stayed, working odd jobs to make a living.”

Richard said his father attended local schools and worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps for $30 a month – good money in those Depression years. Later, Joe worked for the railroad and was there when the war started in December 1941.

“The railroad job gave him a deferment, but he decided to join the Army,” Richard said. “He became a mechanic and was sent to England and could have stayed there, but he wanted to be part of the action.”

Sent to Europe after D-Day, Joe was wounded fighting in Germany and taken prisoner, spending the next six months in a POW camp. Six feet tall and beefy when he entered the service, Joe came out of the POW camp weighing only 120 pounds.

After his release, Joe was granted his U.S. citizenship by the Army. He returned to Fort Collins and opened what would become Joe’s Auto Upholstery, now one of the city’s oldest businesses.

Richard said Joe had a strong work ethic, but he always played by his own rules. “He opened the shop every day about 10 till eight and he closed the shop at five,” he said. “If you got there after five, he was gone.”

Richard said Joe kept track of every penny and made a lot of money during the heyday of auto reupholstery.

“We used to make three sets of seat covers a day in the 1950s,” he said. “Each set cost $55 and wages were 90 cents an hour, so he made good money.”

His father was also very strict about being paid for his work, Richard said. “He was a good businessman – a little harsh, though. If you owed him money, he’d get it.”

But the quality of Joe’s work kept customers returning. “All those years, he had people who kept coming back and coming back,” Richard said. “He was a good craftsman.”

Retired, but in the shop

And when Joe turned 65, that was it. He retired, but he could never stay away from the shop, which remains full of Joe’s collection of antiques and mounted deer and elk heads from his hunting days.

“He’d come in and sit in the recliner and watch me, every day,” Richard said. “Sometimes I’d bring him out of retirement to do a custom Model A or Model T convertible top. He was a whiz at that.”

Richard said much has changed over the years in the downtown area, with new restaurants, shops and bars constantly coming and going. But the shop – and almost everything in it – remains the same.

“We’ve gone from tack hammers to staple guns, but otherwise everything is still the same,” he said.

The shop on Linden Street, cramped as it is, was a location Joe never wanted to leave, Richard said. “My Dad thought Linden Street was the best place in the world to do business,” he said. “He loved the town and this country.”

Richard said even though Joe turned the shop over to him in 1986, he’s never for a moment considered changing its name.

“Everybody’s always known it as Joe’s, and it’ll stay Joe’s as long as I have it,” he said.

FORT COLLINS – Joe Cienfuegos’ journey from Mexico to Fort Collins spanned nine decades and included working in the beet fields of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, fighting in war-torn Europe and miserable captivity as a German prisoner of war.

But nothing could stop him on his road to success that eventually resulted in the founding of his own auto upholstery business in downtown Fort Collins in 1945. It’s a business that goes on under his son, Richard, following Joe’s death on April 14 at age 90.

Richard, 65, is proud of his father and the legacy he left behind…

Related Content