ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Buffalo Billfold Company celebrates 50 years in the leathermaking business

The downtown Worthington business has seen many changes throughout the years.

WORTHINGTON — On the corner of Tenth Street and Fourth Avenue in Worthington, a brick building houses the Buffalo Billfold Company, where Bill Keitel and his wife Laurie have been selling — and making — leather products since 1972 .

Originally from Luverne, Bill, 69, came to Worthington in 1971 and, armed with a dozen belts and some candles, the Keitels opened up shop the following year. Today, their staff operates out of two floors in the historic Tenth Street building, and maintains an online store with more than 130 different products available.

“It’s taken us 50 years to become an overnight success,” Bill joked. “But here’s what it is. We’ve really had a blast here in Worthington. We like what we do. We like the people. Worthington has been incredibly supportive of us.”

During an informal tour of the store, Bill pointed toward a corner at the front end of the basement. Fifty years ago a picture was taken of the Keitels' first day, set up in that same corner.

Since then, the business has expanded exponentially. Piles of tanned leather and cut-outs that have yet to be sewn on one of the six industrial sewing machines in the shop cover much of the work area in the basement. A large table is set up with finished products and shipping boxes. The team at Buffalo Billfold is preparing to send out holiday orders.

ADVERTISEMENT

Back up the stairs, Rebecca Roepke, an out-of-town customer, came into the shop with her husband. The Keitels offered a warm welcome, which Roepke reciprocated enthusiastically.

“I’ve been waiting two years to come back here,” Roepke said excitedly. “I drove all the way over from Wisconsin.”

She proudly showed off her Buffalo Billfold traveling purse, which she got passing through Worthington a couple years ago, before launching into a tale about her first encounter with the Buffalo Billfold name. Bill started to chat with her about the town she lives in and the two spent the next several minutes trading stories like they’re old friends. She ended up purchasing several different products from the shop, including a buffalo-stamped bracelet and some new leather goods.

While their online business has allowed Buffalo Billfold Co. to reach all 50 states, Bill said he still really appreciates the walk-in business they do, which lets interactions like the one with Roepke happen. Still, Bill called it a balance as the business has gone bigger with its in-store production throughout the years, using around 50,000 square feet of buffalo leather every year.

“We are a working leather gallery,” he explained. “Our store is really geared towards production these days.”

While the final steps of that production happen within the walls of the Buffalo Billfold Co. building, the process of obtaining, tanning, and preparing their material stretches much farther than the Worthington shop.

From several locations within the United States, a broker purchases “green” hides from buffalo ranchers, which then get sent to one of several tanneries Buffalo Billfold works with. There, 2,500 to 5,000 square feet of hide are made into leather of different colors, thicknesses, and textures during a six-week process that the Keitels had a hand in developing throughout the years. That involvement and learning process is a staple of the Keitels’ evolving business practices.

“All this stuff, you learn on the way,” Laurie, 67, explained. “I mean, nobody taught any of this to us. I did little leather work as a child...but otherwise as far as business, it's really been learn as you go.”

ADVERTISEMENT

About 25 years ago, the business — then named Cows’ Outside — underwent a metamorphosis after a friend of the Keitels suggested they try out buffalo hides for their products instead of the cow hides they had been using. That first batch went over so well with customers, that the Keitels realized there was a real market for buffalo hide products — and Buffalo Billfold Co. was born.

Not long after, another friend helped set up a website for the fledgling business, which was revamped by the Keitels’ son, Noah, around 2014 and again in 2020, just before the COVID lockdown.

“The timing was, like in so many things for us, amazing,” said Laurie.

Thanks to the website, the team at Buffalo Billfold was able to keep working during those first few months of the pandemic. The Keitels brought sewing machines to employees' homes and someone came in to ship out orders. They stayed separated, Laurie reflected, but they found a way.

“And we didn’t have to lay anyone off,” Bill added. “To me, that’s a big deal.”

The online business and physical store aren’t the only areas of Buffalo Billfold Co. to see expansion, though.

Keitel estimated there are “maybe a hundred” different venues where their leather products are sold, from shop galleries to national parks. They’ve also participated in a number of on-the-road fairs and festivals, in everywhere from Duluth and Fargo, to along the Rocky Mountains and down to New Mexico. They’ve won a few awards for craft and artisanship as well, like “Festival Favorite” for their leather flight bag at Duluth’s Art in Bayfront Park festival.

“We started with doing name bracelets, where we’d put your name on a piece of leather,” Laurie said, looking toward the wall where one of their award winning bags is on display. “That was one of our early products, and now we're doing flight bags.”

ADVERTISEMENT

From those early days 50 years ago, the business has gone through a lot of changes. The Keitels have dabbled in imported gifts, books, and even juggling before finding their place as Buffalo Billfold Co. Throughout it all, though, a love for Worthington has remained unchanged.

“We look at it as an evolution. It’s something that we get to give back to the community.” Bill said. “With what we do, we could probably do this anywhere. We choose to be in Worthington.”

Click here to read the original story on Buffalo Billfolds - Cow's Outside - published in 1972.

Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
What To Read Next
Area leaders were taking part in Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities event.
If convicted, Connell faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and/or a $40,000 fine, and a mandatory minimum of 144 months, on each of the first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges.
Members Only
“With just one student, it was a little challenging,” Tarus said. “... the harvest was a little rough.”
Newspaper industry peers from the Kansas Press Association judged the 3,453 contest entries submitted from 132 Minnesota newspapers.