Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Michelangelos with mig welders
Artists bring the outdoors in at Bass Pro Shops’ new stores

by Jim McCarty
Bass Pro Shops employs a unique mix of artisans skilled in working steel, copper, wood, plastic or whatever the job calls for. The various departments collaborate on work.
Bass Pro Shops employs a unique mix of artisans skilled in working steel, copper, wood, plastic or whatever the job calls for. The various departments collaborate on work.

In the beginning there was the Springfield store, and no one had ever seen anything like it. So many people flocked to Bass Pro Shops’ Outdoor World in Springfield that it quickly became the state’s No. 1 tourist destination, a distinction it still holds.

They came not just to buy guns and fishing lures and camping equipment and boats. Little things like a life-sized “Kodiak-moment” bear mount, an indoor trout stream and cages full of live snakes made the trip an adventure in retail shopping. For those who stopped by often enough, little extras came to life, such as the ironwork on the massive fireplace doors and the indoor log cabin.

In 1995, the company branched out with a new store in Atlanta, followed two years later by a third store in Florida. In short order, what was once an eight-foot display of bass lures in a package liquor store grew until today there are 47 stores with two more about to open, including one in Independence.

“Our stores are unlike any other retailer I know of,” says Larry Whiteley, manager of corporate relations for Bass Pro Shops. “They are not cookie cutter, concrete block-like stores. There’s not many retailers that will devote 37 percent on average of a store to aquariums, murals, metalwork, museum-quality dioramas and those giant fireplaces.
“The Springfield store was neat. But some of these new stores, they just take your breath away.”

He gives examples such as the Miami store, which is designed to make the visitor feel like they are walking through a sunken ship, and the Oklahoma City store, which features a herd of bison being chased by American Indians.

Larry Kerr heats the ram’s head he is working so that he can adjust the horns. The finished piece is destined to become part of a handrail for a future Bass Pro Shops store in Canada.
Larry Kerr heats the ram’s head he is working so that he can adjust the horns. The finished piece is destined to become part of a handrail for a future Bass Pro Shops store in Canada.

The store set to open this spring in Independence features an indoor mill with working water wheel plus a 30-acre park complete with a lake stocked with bass and bluegill where customers can try out their new purchases right away.

A big part of the reason the Bass Pro Shops empire attracts 90 million visitors a year can be found just south of the Outdoor World headquarters in Nixa. Here an eclectic mix of artisans and craftspeople produce the things that give the stores their unique appeal.
From a cabinet shop that makes counters to hold sporting goods to the metal shop that makes ornate iron and copper work, the work going on here almost defies the imagination.

On a typical day, Kirk Sullens, a formally trained artist-blacksmith, works in an aged Quonset hut along with four other metalworkers. Seated at a foot-operated hammer, he gently taps the face of various tools, driving them into a flat piece of 14-gauge steel. Almost by magic, his efforts raise the flat metal into the three-dimensional form of an artic fox.

Around him the eggs-frying sound of a mig welder at work mixes with the angry whine of an angle grinder smoothing the surface of another piece, this one a rabbit being forged by David Hamilton. As he shapes its ears, David refers often to a color photo to ensure the critter he is making looks real.

At each bench, animal forms ranging from a herd of 30 charging bison to a swimming sturgeon take shape. These pieces are destined to become part of a railing for a new store in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Kirk Sullens leans against a finished oval that depicts a weasel eating berries. For 13 years, he has been working metal for Bass Pro Shops.
Kirk Sullens leans against a finished oval that depicts a weasel eating berries. For 13 years, he has been working metal for Bass Pro Shops.

Across a yard cluttered with 8-foot chandeliers and copper nautilus shells, other artisans work on details for the new stores. Rows of copper lanterns soon will hang from the entrances, welcoming visitors with warm yellow light filtered through leaping bass.

In the finishing room, all the pieces come together where they are sprayed with clear lacquer. Among other things, the artists in this department work with concrete stain to paint outdoor scenes on circles of Plexiglas. These will hang on the underside of the great chandeliers that are a Bass Pro Shops store trademark.

Elsewhere, woodcarvers add details to the giant timbers that give the stores an Adirondack lodge feel. Just about every piece that graces every store is made here.

“None of this is off the rack,” says Kirk, a 13-year veteran at Bass Pro Shops. “You don’t go to a store and say I want a Bass Pro chandelier or a I want a Bass Pro fireplace door because this is the only place that has those. These things are not made to be sold. We are making these to create the experience for the people who come in the store.”

The metalsmiths are a big part of the Bass Pro Shops experience. Each store has multiple chandeliers, studded with realistic steel deer, elk or moose heads. Kirk worked with real antlers to develop these heads. “I had a pile of antlers that would just about fill up this room,” he says. “I’d just pull out a set and lay it on the table and make metal ones that looked as close to that as I could.”

At first he used layers of flat steel to give the heads dimension. Then he perfected the hollow-formed method made in two sections and then welded together.

Kirk came to Bass Pro Shops in an unusual way. He was an operator for AT&T when technology led to his layoff. The company had money to retrain employees, and Kirk asked to spend his share learning to be a blacksmith.

David Hamilton went from building trailers to creating art like this Indian village for Bass Pro Shops. HIs efforts on this project include a miniature fire and spear.
David Hamilton went from building trailers to creating art like this Indian village for Bass Pro Shops. HIs efforts on this project include a miniature fire and spear.

It took a stack of books and magazines to convince the skeptical phone company that blacksmithing was still a viable trade. But in the end, Kirk headed to Bethel in north Missouri as the sole student of Bob Patrick’s Big Anvil School of Blacksmithing.

Today Kirk is the president of the Blacksmiths Association of Missouri, an organization founded by his mentor. He frequently leads demonstrations at BAM meetings and his work has been featured internationally.

He shares tips he learns at meetings of the blacksmith group and from the international group to which he belongs. Often the metalworkers tackle a project as a team, with each person working alone on their part, then bringing it all together in the finishing stage.

“That’s interesting because everyone has different styles,” says David, who built trailers before being discovered by Bass Pro Shops. “We store up ideas. These guys are a wealth of information and they don’t mind sharing it with each other.”

To add details, the metalworkers here wield a mig welder like it was a paint brush loaded with thick paint. Layers of welding wire flow from the welder onto the formed piece, becoming feathers on a bald eagle, scales on a fish or fur on a bison.

This detail of an angler graces the fireplace screen at the Bass Pro Shops store in Branson.
This detail of an angler graces the fireplace screen at the Bass Pro Shops store in Branson.

They make use of traditional tools including anvils and hammers but also use modern devices such as plasma cutters. Many of their tools are hand made as needed.

Few corporations the size of Bass Pro Shops would justify keeping a crew like this working on its stores. But then, there are few companies that would attempt what Bass Pro Shops has done.

“If it were up to the bean counters, we’d have been gone a long time ago,” Kirk says. “But this company is not owned by a board of directors. It’s owned by one person and that one person, John L. Morris, likes metalwork. It’s nice to have a patron like that. Michelangelo didn’t have it any better than I have it.”

Bass Pro Shops’ Missouri stores include Branson, Columbia, St. Charles and Springfield. The Independence store is set to open this month. For more information, log on to www.basspro.com. To see more of Kirk Sullens’ work, visit the artist’s Web site at kirksullens.com.

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