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Gas, Pop, Eggs ... and 1,000 Guns
Editor’s Note: A lot has changed since we first wrote about Kones Korner. The old store has been replaced with a new, more modern building. Curt Carter, the friendly proprietor we met, passed away in 1996. Today his son Vic operates the business, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. And even though you won’t find gas for $1.22 a gallon, much about Kones Korner has remained the same. Here’s what we found on the day we stopped in the summer of 1985.
Driving by on U.S. Highway 81, Kones Korner looks like a lot of other country gas stations, except for the bear trap on the roof.
Black hens peck peacefully at the gravel in the parking lot. Red letters advertise regular gas for $1.22. An aluminum-sided ice machine struggles to stay cool in the summer sun.
Even when you first enter the station, it appears generic. There's a cooler of milk and pop. A cardboard sign advertises eggs, manufactured fresh daily by the hens outside. Hiland Potato Chip bags, in a rainbow of colors, fill a rack by the door. All the name-brand candy bars are in rows on the counter. A few beer signs and auction posters round out the decor.
That's the front room. Step past the auction posters and the Castlewood girls basketball schedule to your right and Kones Korner takes on a new dimension; suddenly you see guns hanging on the walls, guns standing in racks, guns lying in display cases — more guns than you've likely ever seen within four walls.
Housed in this unpretentious exterior is South Dakota's biggest gun shop. Owner Curt Carter says he usually has 1,000 guns on hand, including new and used. He sells and trades up to 2,000 guns a year.
A lifelong sportsman, Carter was born on a farm south of Castlewood. "Granddad was a homesteader here. In fact, he's buried on a plot of ground on the homestead. We don't even know where exactly. " Curt's father was an avid sportsman — one of the early Black Hills hunters — and he taught his son how to handle a gun. "I grew up with a gun my hand," he says. Ever since his youth, he has enjoyed hunting pheasant, deer, waterfowl and other game.
He farmed as a young man in the Castlewood area before he and his wife, Vi, bought Kones Korner from an uncle in 1964. Back then, the station was a typical "pop, gas and beer" stop on the highway.
"I had a few used guns I'd got at a sale and I took them to the station to see if I could sell them," he recalls. "When they were gone, people asked me if I was going to get more guns."
Always anxious to oblige, he got a few more.
"It just didn't take a long time," he says. "In three or four years, we had a couple hundred guns. In 1969, we built on a new gunroom and expanded to about 500 guns. In 1974, we added another gunroom and now we carry a thousand guns continually."
A few big gun stores in the Midwest may carry that many guns, but they probably have a dozen or more of each type, and very few used guns. Nowhere in the region are hunters likely to find the variety of rifles, shotguns and handguns, new and used, that are on display in this modest country store 10 miles south of Watertown.
If Kones Korner is the premier gun shop in the state, then its proprietor must be the premier gun dealer. He doesn't fit Dale Carnegie's description of a top salesman. Yet his soft-spoken manner, rural wit and Dakota-western garb seem to be just what it takes to move firearms.
"Are you finding something?" he asks a young man who is browsing through the gunroom with a toddler in tow. "I'll trade you a gun for that nice little boy you got there ... he could help me pump gas!"
The little boy looks up with a start and the young father grins.
Another customer, stopping for a half-gallon carton of Lakeside milk, asks if the weather will be "fit to combine" that afternoon. "Somewhere it might be," replied Curt. He has a good word for all who enter, including both the locals who buy milk and beer and fuel, or the visitors from afar who come to see the guns.
Equally friendly are two large, black German short hairs that roam the shop, Joe and Speck. "Joe is the best young dog we've come up with," says Curt matter-of-factly. Speck doesn't seem offended. Curt and his wife live in the back of the store. They raise chickens and ducks and cats and a female coon named Jim.
"Jim gets along with the cats. She's the boss, I tell you!" laughed Curt. Time to sell sweet corn Vi Carter helps with the store but refuses to get too involved with the guns. Their son, Vic, has been associated with the store for the past 10 years. They also have two daughters and five grandchildren.
Even though the guns have given Kones Korner a big-time reputation, the Carters still provide the service you might expect of a small-town store. They sell a local farm boy's sweet corn for $1 a dozen. Tacked up with farm auction posters and the girls basketball schedule are other community announcements, including a notice that Senator Jim Abdnor will speak in the area.
In fact, that down-home touch lends an atmosphere to the establishment that the gun counter of K-mart could never copy. (The Carters wouldn't consider it "marketing," but the antlers nailed to the roof alongside the bear trap also add to the mystique) .
The only fixture that looks out of place is a bright red video machine; but even it has been adapted to fit the environment. It is home to a bumper sticker that reads BERNHARD GOETZ: AMERICAN HERO.
Carter says his business doesn't change much from year to year. "We're in shotgun country here, and my shotgun business is tremendous. We're on the edge of real good bird country." He said goose hunting was suffering for a few years, "but it came back last fall." Numerous marshes, ponds and lakes in the region create ideal duck conditions, and the pheasant population seems to be improving. But local hunting conditions don't affect his gun trade. Customers come from a radius of 250 miles around. Most arrive in the months of September, October and November — a 90-day spell when he will sell half of his guns for the year. An Alaskan who comes to northeast South Dakota annually to hunt pheasants always buys his shells from the Carters.
"It used to be you'd wake up in the mornings and you'd wonder where the people would come from to buy the guns," Carter said, confessing to an affliction that strikes many small businessmen. "But it seemed the more guns I gathered in, the more people would come."
Carter, a self-confessed wheeler-dealer, says he enjoys dealing with the vast majority of hunters. He even admits to a streak of "wheeler-dealer-ism" and has been known to shake dice for a gun. "I don't like to do that, though," he says. "It's too hard on my nerves." (However, he is always ready to shake for a pop or a beer.) He sells guns for prices ranging from $50 to $1,500 and says he operates on about a 10 percent markup on new guns. In fact, he says he sells the new firearms for about wholesale price to cash customers and makes his only profit from a 10 percent discount allowed by the wholesalers for paying promptly. He and his son check over all used guns before re-selling them. "We stand back of them," he said. "Most people are very understanding if there is a problem. We give them their money back, or put it toward another gun." The Carters are active members of the Dakota Territory Gun Collectors Association. They regularly exhibit their stock at the 10 shows held each year by the group. Along with his inventory of new and used guns, Carter has acquired a collection of antique Colt handguns and Winchester rifles dating back to the 1850s.
The hours are long. Kones Korner is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Sundays, when "I sleep in until 8 a.m." But they still find time for hunting trips and an occasional country-western concert.
At age 57, Curt Carter is content with life as it is at Kones Korner. "I'll continue just as long as the good Lord will let me."
This story is edited from the September 1985 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.