The Trickle-Down Effect

The Trickle-Down Effect

Official Publication of the National Bison Association –

I’m a small player in the bison industry yet it is an integral part of my life. I am a leather smith by trade, I contract tan perhaps thirty five to fifty thousand square feet of bison hides each year and market it to a hundred different saddle shops, museums, state and national parks. It is a lifestyle of building relationships with people interested American craftsmanship and people interested in the North American Bison.

We have a retail store that is on the Registry of National Historic Places, it is a multi level building that serves as a production facility and also a retail space. Our efforts are evenly divided between retail shows, art festivals, wholesale accounts and a very viable internet presence.
As long as our dedicated employees don’t mutiny on us, my wife and I can wander off to attend these juried art festivals and various wholesale exhibitions throughout the United States and beyond. Three or four months each year we saddle up and head off in our RV. We call it the StarShip -“Going Where No LeatherSmiths Have Gone Before”. Our territory generally includes the historic range of the bison, far flung places…Milwaukee to Duluth, to Fargo, to Bozeman, Cody Wyoming, Sioux Falls, SD, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and in the wintertime we head to New Mexico and Arizona. After twenty years we’ve attended over fourteen hundred days as festivals and estimate that we have casually visited with well over three million people that have an interest in bison and our products. It seems like the life of a modern day gypsy, we enjoy the travel and adventure.

My wife Lauri and I have been in business for 46 years and I served an apprenticeship as a shoe repairman. My specialty was prescription orthopedic buildup work for a podiatry school. I come from a family of five optometrists and the thought of me not pursuing that profession was distressing for numerous family members. I’ve spent my career as a leather smith… lost in time, perhaps I should have been born 150 years ago? Somewhat like the ranching industry? It is timeless and needs no defending.
Alas, my family realized that I had found a niche that suited my interests and I was determined not to be an optometrist spending my days in front of a screen asking patients “number one or number two? Which looks clearer?” “Number one or number two?”. I wish them well, they all led engaging, satisfying and meaningful careers.

I’ve recently reached retirement age and reflect on what the past twenty years in the bison industry has meant to me. You might say I have earned my junior philosophers badge.

I’ve never gone hungry and I’ve sent my children to college and they are fully fledged, capable, industrious, responsible citizens. We’ve also helped others in their college careers, they too are worthy of pride and admiration.
We’ve been able to actively support community projects and show generosity beyond our city. We’ve had good fortune.

I don’t raise bison so I’ve always felt like I’m on the perimeter of the organization. I also acknowledge that I’ve been brought “into the fold” by many generous ranchers and people within the bison industry. I also recognize that I am living a profession that died out more than one hundred years ago. This thought has always tempered my enthusiasm, because of this I have always kept my gratitude higher than my expectations.

I belong to many civic organizations and have also appreciated belonging to numerous bison organizations. I appreciate their dedication to this most noble cause. Recently the National Bison Association promoted an aspect that had direct implications to my business. (Here’s the story)

Seven years ago an elderly man lamented as he looked at my buffalo leather products. He explained that he had spent his entire life in the “wallet and billfold” industry. I had immediate empathy for this fellow and told him the inner most details of our products and marketing strategies. As he was leaving he then turned to me and mentioned “My son took over the business”. I was immediately mortified!!

Within eighteen months of this conversation, it occurred…. This man’s son was exporting American buffalo and turning it into leather goods emblazoned with American flags on all of the packaging. All the while this product was being made with brutally cheap and ruthless foreign labor. The public had no concept or interest in looking past their slick advertising to find the little tags of origin (found in the inner/upper left hand corner of the wallet). American flags a’flyin everywhere saying AMERICAN BUFFALO! No where visibly does it say “made in India” or “made in China”. The production cost perhaps 1/8th to 1/10th the price? We pride ourselves in responsibly taking care of our employees, they have children and health care concerns.

Alas, it’s a big world and many places to market products. I have learned to compete on my own, much like my rancher friends I suspect? It is mighty good to have a common bond and common purpose in this crazy mixed up world.

I salute those that support the National Bison Association and their efforts making truth in labeling, advertising and accountability.

It is our confidence in the bison rancher and our craftsman way of life, command over materials, tools and processes that keep alive the pride in American cottage industry.

This organization has every reason to Stand Tall and Be Proud of the efforts of all those involved.


Bill and Lauri Keitel
Worthington, MN

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