Bud Keller ran his fingers over prime raccoon fur destined for use as a coat, collar or cuffs, perhaps on the other side of the world.
“This is a good one,” Keller said.
He should know. After 44 years, Keller has held thousands of furs from coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, otters and beaver. Keller Fur on Main Street in this southwest Missouri town is an annual winter destination for hundreds of trappers and hunters with pelts to sell. Furs harvested in Missouri are valued at more than $8.5 million annually and generate more than $60 million for the state’s economy.
Missouri has several fur buyers and auctions. But few with as much experience as the Keller family of St. Clair County.
Keller, 85, skinned his first raccoon at age 14 during the Great Depression. Years of farming for a living and hunting for fun and cash from fur followed. Then he opened his fur buying business in 1969. Profit alone hasn’t kept him in the business, because in some years low fur prices hammered his bottom line.
“I’ve just always enjoyed messing with fur,” Keller said. “When I was a boy I liked to hunt, and I just took a liking to messing with fur.”
His interest morphed into a family business open from December into March. Neomia Keller, his wife of 63 years, is a retired school teacher and helps run the business. Keller’s children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews work with him at the warehouse on Main Street. They scrape and dry hides, grade and pack pelts for shipment to tanners, and help with the buying and selling duties.
“I’ve seen a lot of fur come and go,” Bud Keller said. He remembers as a boy selling raccoon pelts for $3 apiece in the late 1930s. “The limit was 10 a year and there were not many.”
Conservation with science-based management and citizen support has helped wildlife rebound to plentiful numbers. Trapping and hunting help control population numbers among fur-bearing mammals. Those sports are part of Missouri’s rich outdoor recreation traditions as well as an economic boost.
Keller watched fur prices go up and down over the decades. They’ve been on the upswing in recent years. He paid an average of $15 for raccoon pelts this winter, and the best ones brought up to $25. Coyotes were averaging $15 a pelt and bobcats brought $75.
Tanning companies purchase fur from local buyers like Keller and sell it to clothing manufacturers around the world. The demand is heaviest in Russia and Asia, Keller said. Cold weather in early winter in Europe and Asia perks up demand and prices.
“China buys as much fur today as all the other countries put together,” Keller said.
When he started, most of the fur came from hunters such as those that ran hound dogs, he said. These days, trappers provide about two-thirds of the fur he buys and hunters the rest. Compared to his early years, the business now sees far more coyotes, bobcats and otters. Muskrats have declined.
This past winter, Keller estimates his family handled 14,000 raccoon pelts, 1,200 muskrats, 1,000 possums, almost 700 coyotes, 500 otters, 400 bobcats and some assorted beaver, fox, mink and badger. The pelts are sorted by size and grade before going to the next market.
There’s more to the business than just the price of pelts and his family’s tradition. Keller enjoys the trappers and hunters he meets.
It’s been a long time since he tacked his first raccoon hide up on a barn to dry. But the feeling is the same today as he walks among pelts from bobcats and coyotes hanging in a drying room.
“I just love fooling with fur,” Keller said.
WILEY COYOTE STOPS HERE – Bud Keller examines a coyote pelt at the Keller Fur warehouse. He’s handled thousands of animal pelts in his career as a fur buyer. Missouri Department of Conservation photo
GOOD COON HIDE – Bud Keller examines a raccoon pelt ready for grading and shipping at the Keller Fur. Missouri Department of Conservation photo
HOW MANY WAYS TO SKIN THESE CATS? – Bud Keller has handled thousands of animal pelts during his 44 years as a fur buyer, including these bobcat and coyote furs. Missouri Department of Conservation photo