Brotherly Love: Beartooth Mercantile carries on the spirit of the West
The drive between Cody and Yellowstone Park is one of the most scenic drives in the U.S., but for one local business owner, the spectacular drive through the South Fork Valley is his daily commute.
Owner of Beartooth Mercantile William (BG) Kunz spends his day manufacturing and fabricating farm equipment and firearm parts, a dream created through a brotherly bond.
In 2010, BG and his brother Kris Kunz started Beartooth Mercantile, fabricating firearm parts in a small shop on the family farm.
Today, the shop sells a variety of goods online – from a custom-made Beartooth Mercantile Model 1895B to a T-post puller for the local rancher.
How it all began
The Kunz family has raised Black Angus cattle in the Cody area for decades, instilling values and building a solid foundation for brothers Kris and BG.
The ranching lifestyle builds character and grit, and Fred and Lorie Kunz did just this, raising their children to embody the “Code of the West,” working side-by-side and building a future together.
“While we were growing up, and still today, the family’s primary income is through agriculture – cattle, hay and custom farming,” BG states. “But, Kris and I had ideas, and in 2010 we started Beartooth Mercantile.”
The business name originated from a common theme and is the pillar the business stands on today.
“At the time, my brother Kris and I had been spending quite a bit of time in the Beartooth Mountains. We had been doing some fishing, exploring and a lot of spring snowmobiling and backcountry skiing,” BG explains.
“We thought the Beartooths were pretty neat at the time, and they still are today,” he continues. “Some of the rifles we were making accessories for are used for bear protection, and we liked the bear theme in the name.”
He continues, “We also liked the idea of an old-time general store or mercantile – the idea of a place where a person could buy supplies for life in the wilderness or frontier, so we combined those ideas and came up with Beartooth Mercantile.”
“We created a business logo which started as a sticker to put in with orders,” BG mentions. “It closely resembles the Forest Service shield and goes along with the wilderness and old-time theme, so it stuck.”
And just like that, the brothers’ business journey began in the family shop.
The Wild West comes alive
Kris began fabricating magazine tube followers and saddle ring studs on a manual lathe for Marlin and Winchester lever action rifles.
“When we started, cowboy action shooting was popular, and customers wanted their rifles to be custom with accessories popular a century ago,” BG recalls. “So, Kris started to modify factory lever loops into custom levers by hand. They were nice and people liked them, but we knew it wasn’t feasible to keep producing this way if we wanted to grow.”
Over time, Beartooth Mercantile has evolved into a modern machine shop with a couple of Computer Numbered Control (CNC) machines and various shop tools to make the accessories.
Although Kris was very talented and had great natural instincts for manual machining, it forced the brothers to learn a lot about materials, manufacturing and machining at a faster rate and in more depth than anticipated.
“In the beginning, Kris started fabricating in my dad’s shop on the farm where he had enough equipment and tools to get him started, but being involved in agriculture and constantly needing to fix broken equipment requires a pretty well-outfitted shop,” BG notes.
At one time, the brothers’ grandpa Bill Kunz owned the John Deere dealership in Cody, and the family still has his old South Bend manual lathe, which Kris started on.
While Kris was focused on fabricating, BG was working an engineering job. He began setting up the company website and started investigating ways to make efficient products to sell on a larger scale.
The brothers tried outsourcing some of the work but were unsatisfied with the result and eventually bought their own CNC machines.
“I think doing as much as possible in house is best. It also allows efficient prototyping and small-batch production,” BG says.
Tragedy hits home
In September 2018, Kris was diagnosed with “ALL-b” leukemia, an acute lymphoblastic leukemia with the Philadelphia chromosome.
BG explains, “Learning to manufacture our own products forced Kris and I to learn about subjects we really enjoyed. However, Kris being diagnosed with leukemia forced us, as well as our parents, to learn about a disease we would prefer to have never known about.”
During this time, Kris had some other medical issues, but the family never imagined it leading to leukemia.
“I was in total denial the first week and pretty naive. Myself and the rest of the family quickly learned leukemia does not just impact kids at St. Jude’s,” he mentions. “Prior to this experience, I thought leukemia was pretty much curable, and in my mind, I didn’t need to worry about it.”
Kris was 35 when he was diagnosed, and BG had expected him to beat it since he was still relatively young.
Kris spent a solid five months in the Billings Clinic in Billings, Mont. to receive treatment and was transferred to the University of Colorado Health in Aurora, Colo. early in 2019 for a bone marrow transplant.
“It was a very difficult time for all of us, and the transplant had complications. Kris passed away in November of 2019,” BG states. “My parents, as well as Kris and I, had a strong Catholic faith before Kris got sick, but my parents and I have dealt with this family tragedy by returning to the Catholic church, not missing a weekly mass since November 2019.”
A light in the dark
The bonded brothers were still creating and involved with Beartooth Mercantile even while Kris was hospitalized.
Their dedication – an established moral instilled by their parents, grounded by their ranching background – kept Beartooth Mercantile growing during a tragic time.
“During a relatively peaceful time in the course of his treatment, Kris discovered one of his doctors was a hobby target shooter, and when things got bad at the end while Kris was in the ICU, he had me bring him one of our accessories he knew this doctor would like,” BG states.
“Kris gave it to the doctor while in the ICU, and it seemed to strike him that Kris was interested in giving him something during such a difficult time,” he adds.
Life continues on the farm
BG’s primary job is operating Beartooth Mercantile, but he continues to spend a significant amount of time working on the family ranch.
“I might have some CNC machines going in the morning and then head out to set water or check cows. Then, I’ll come back to the shop to fulfill some orders,” BG notes.
“My day is a combination of shop work and the Beartooth business, making sure we don’t have a cow on the road or trying to calve in a snow storm, plus it is nice to have a CNC mill when you need to bore an inch and a half diameter hole through a 5/8” plate to fix the corrugator,” he adds.
Kris will always be remembered for his creativity, and BG intends to make those ideas come to life in products the mercantile can sell.
He reiterates, “Kris always liked outdoor gear and accessories and had a knack for knowing what was useful and what was a gimmick. His ideas helped create products we sell today.”
Another example of the brother’s devotion to the outdoors and setting the example of an ethical lifestyle was the Winchester 94-22 takedown saddle ring.
According to BG, this product was made by a company called Uncle Mike’s and was popular among Winchester 94-22 rifle owners. Still, the rifles ceased production in the early 2000s, and Uncle Mike’s stopped making the saddle ring.
“Kris recognized these items were selling for ridiculously high prices on auction sites like eBay because people still wanted them, so we brought them back into regular production and offered them at a fair price. I am still selling them today, even with the Winchester 94-22 rifle being out of production,” he states.
“It is hard to say anything good came out of Kris’s passing, but Beartooth Mercantile keeps Kris’s ideas and dreams going and in our lives and others,” he adds.
Today, Kris’s legacy built on faith and family continues to live on in the Beartooth Mercantile shop.
For more information on Beartooth Mercantile, visit beartoothmercantile.com.
Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.