Whether the sale announced Monday of Cabela’s to Bass Pro ultimately will affect Cabela’s stores in Owatonna, Woodbury, Rogers and East Grand Forks is unknown.
But the transaction, viewed in historical context, highlights the fluid nature of a business that counts among its primary customers hunters, anglers and campers.
Among the first Twin Cities outfits to serve this clientele was Kennedy Brothers Arms of St. Paul. An ad in a vintage issue of Hunter-Trader-Trapper magazine boasted that Kennedy Brothers sold “firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle, camp outfits, tents, boats, canoes” and “all kinds of steel traps at right prices.”
By one account, Kennedy Brothers was founded in 1837, lasted perhaps until the 1960s and counted among its gun customers Teddy Roosevelt. Its most famous family member was Roger George Kennedy, born Aug. 3, 1926, in St. Paul, who as a young man guided in the boundary waters. A Yale University and U law school graduate, he was a bank chairman, a U vice president, a founder of the Guthrie Theater and director of the National Park Service from 1993-1997.
Gokeys, founded in 1850, was another Twin Cities outdoors store. An excellent source of high-quality gear, including Duluth packs, a couple of which I still own, Gokeys was purchased by Orvis in 1990. Gokeys’ flagship St. Paul store was closed two years later. Today, Orvis builds footwear in Tipton, Mo., under the Gokey name.
In 1970, twin brothers Bud and Ted Burger, age 25, opened their first Burger Brothers store at 44th and France in Edina. “Our passion was good equipment and the people who used it,” Bud Burger said.
The Burgers’ Edina store was built on stilts, with parking underneath. “There were 14 steps to get up to the store level,” Ted said. “We figured if a guy couldn’t climb 14 steps, he probably wasn’t going to hunt or fish much anyway.”
Burger Brothers grew to six stores, with 400 employees, before being sold in 1995 to the third generation of the Erickson family, owners of Holiday gas stations. The Burgers’ outlets became keystone stores for the Gander Mountain chain, headquartered in St. Paul, which today operates 164 stores in 27 states. Once publicly traded, Gander is now privately held.
During these many changes, Joe’s Sporting Goods, begun in 1930 when Joe Rauscher opened his shop at Como and Dale in St. Paul, remained steadfast.
Rauscher sold his business to his son, Joe, in 1958, and when the younger Joe died in 1993, his sons, Joe and Jim, took over, expanding the business significantly and moving it to its present location off Rice and Hwy. 36. in Little Canada.
Through the years, other Twin Cities outdoor retailers have come and gone, including Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) and Galyans, whose 47 stores were sold to Dick’s Sporting Goods for $305 million in 2004.
Cabela’s, meanwhile, founded in 1961, during this time grew its catalogue business significantly, then its retail outlets, thanks in large part to Dennis Highby, a Minnesota native who worked at the old Herter’s (itself a cornerstone of Minnesota sporting goods history) before moving to Nebraska to join Cabela’s.
Highby would become Cabela’s CEO, and during his long career there recruited many Minnesotans to work for Cabela’s, citing their outdoors acumen and work ethic.
In the mid-1990s, Highby hosted a turkey hunt for Bud Grant, Buzz Kaplan and me at a tent camp in the Nebraska panhandle. Cabela’s founders, Dick and Jim Cabela, were there as well, and around a campfire one evening Kaplan, a successful Owatonna businessman who owned property along I-35 just north of that town, suggested to the Cabelas that they build their first store outside of Nebraska on his Owatonna-area property.
They did, and the Owatonna store was one of 85 bought Monday by privately held Bass Pro, which owns 99 outdoor mega-stores and is headquartered in Missouri. Johnny Morris is Bass Pro’s founder and majority shareholder.
Another of Morris’ companies, White River Marine Group, owns Tracker, Sun Tracker, Nitro, Tahoe, Regency, Mako, Ranger, Triton and Stratos boats.
Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities, a handful of specialty fly and muskie shops continue to serve anglers, while various retailers, among them Gander Mountain, Fleet Farm, Sportsman’s Guide, Capra’s, REI, Midwest Mountaineering and Dick’s, vie for their own shares of the outdoor retail market.
Just like the Kennedy brothers of St. Paul did so many years ago.
Dennis Anderson email@example.com