Dennis Anderson
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When Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis closed its doors last fall after more than 50 years in business, another chapter in Minnesota's long, colorful history of sporting goods outfitters was written.

Midwest Mountaineering's reputation for quality gear, especially paddling equipment, and salespeople who were knowledgeable about canoe travel and other adventuring, was well-deserved. Midwest Mountaineering also over many years bore a vibe that suggested it was the place to be if you were headed into the hinterlands — in part because some, or many, of the people who hung out there, or worked there, had already been to places you were going.

That said, its location on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, on the West Bank, was problematic for several reasons, including parking availability.

Midwest Mountaineering's rise and fall recalls similar comings and goings of other Minnesota outfitters, many of which produced or sold gear that performed as promised, but for various reasons couldn't compete. In some cases, they failed because hunters, anglers, skiers, climbers and others who spend time outdoors migrated to "the next big thing'' in retailing. In other, more recent failings, outfitters lacked the capital or know-how to compete online.

One long-ago outfitter, now buried in the history books, was Minnesota's first major outdoor retailer and cataloguer, Kennedy Bros. Arms Co. of St. Paul.

Established in 1866, Kennedy Bros. sold a lot of guns, many through its catalog, including to buffalo hunters. Teddy Roosevelt even shopped there for rifles on his way west.

In 1917, Kennedy Bros. opened a retail store at the corner of Minnesota and 5th streets in downtown St. Paul, advertising "hunting outfits, camping supplies, fishing tackle and athletic goods.'' The store closed in 1958.

Another downtown St. Paul outdoor landmark now gone was Gokey, established in 1850, whose handmade boots and other footwear, as well as duffels (including Duluth packs), gun cases and quality clothing made them an interesting, if somewhat upscale, destination. (Gokey is still in business, in Missouri. See

A page from the Kennedy Bros. Arms Co. of St. Paul catalog in the early 1900s, when guns were sold through the mail.
A page from the Kennedy Bros. Arms Co. of St. Paul catalog in the early 1900s, when guns were sold through the mail.

Still, another major player in the long history of Minnesota sporting goods retailers was George Herter. The founder of Herter's who was once described as "a dazzling mixture of bamboozle and brains, snake oil and savvy," George started his business in his parents' Waseca garage in 1936, selling flies and cork duck decoys, before expanding into other products.

Some years ago, I owned six dozen bluebill and canvasback Herter's decoys, which I used while duck hunting on Delta Marsh in Manitoba. Though heavy, these blocks rode high in the water, attracted birds and were in strong demand. As a bonus, you could shoot them and they wouldn't sink.

At one time, Herter's was the nation's largest mail-order sporting goods business, with 2-inch-thick catalogs that periodically arrived in customers' mailboxes. In addition to Waseca, Herter's opened stores in Glenwood, Minn.; Mitchell, S.D.; Beaver Dam, Wis.; Iowa City and Iowa Falls, Iowa; and Olympia, Wash.

When Herter's went bankrupt in 1977, the brand was purchased by Cabela's, which in turn was bought by Bass Pro Shops in 2016.

Twins Ted and Bud Burger were just 25 years old in 1970 when they opened their first Burger Brothers Sporting Goods store at 50th and France in Edina, quickly establishing themselves as outdoorsmen who could speak firsthand about quality outdoor gear and how to use it.

"The Japanese were knocking off a lot of outdoor equipment at the time, which appealed to the bigger players that were concerned about price points,'' Bud said. "That left us with an opportunity to sell quality products on the west side of the Twin Cities, which Joe's [Sporting Goods] and Gokey's were also doing, but in St. Paul."

The brothers started their business because of their love of outdoor activities and the associated lifestyle.

"Today, everything is driven by electronic media. But it still comes back to quality merchandise,'' Bud said. "If you can couple that with educating the customers and employing knowledgeable staff, you've got a successful format."

In 1995, six Burger Brothers stores, employing 400 people, were sold to Gander Mountain [now, through various transactions, Gander Outdoors]. Gander Mountain, in turn, opened more than 160 stores in 27 states before filing for bankruptcy.

Another Twin Cities outdoor-retail player now gone was Eastern Mountain Sports, or EMS. As I recall, EMS started with a small, upstairs shop in Minneapolis on Hennepin Avenue, which is where I bought a pair of wooden cross-country skis I still own. Later, EMS opened a larger Roseville store with a climbing wall and sold quality outdoor clothing and gear.

In fact, the marketing approach and product lines EMS offered resembled in some ways those that REI currently employs, successfully, at its three Twin Cities outlets.

Today, though Minnesota's sporting goods scene is dominated by big outfits such as Cabela's, Dick's, REI and Scheels, as well as Fleet Farm and Walmart. Joe's in St. Paul, now in its 94th year, remains a successful, privately owned outlier, as does Reeds Family Outdoor Outfitters in Walker, in business 72 years.

"My grandfather, Joe, started Joe's as a Buick repair shop at Como and Dale in St. Paul," said Joe Rauscher III, who now owns Joe's. "He had concrete tanks in the basement of his shop that could keep minnows alive in winter, which was rare then. That's how he got into the bait shop and sporting goods business."

Joe III and his brother, Jim, who retired a year ago, moved the business to its present-day St. Paul location in 2003. Quality gear, customer service and knowledgeable employees (one of whom has been at Joe's 40 years) have been critical to the business' success, Rauscher said.

For similar reasons, Reeds has succeeded, despite its headquarters being far from the metro, in Walker (with another store in Onamia, serving the Mille Lacs area), said its patriarch, Jeff Arnold, whose two sons, Adam and Andrew, own the business.

"We want to give the customers a positive experience when they come into the store," Jeff Arnold said. "Best service, price and advice has been our focus, along with a competitive online presence."

And consumers in this ever-changing marketplace — the outdoor enthusiasts — are they better off now than in the past, or worse?

Far better, with more outdoor clothing and equipment options than ever.

Today's challenge, however, remains the same as Teddy Roosevelt's was a century and more ago when he stopped at Kennedy Bros. Arms in St. Paul: To buy gear that performs as promised, at an affordable price.