The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
  • One part gun shop, one part man cave

  • It is 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and the door of Smokey Acres Trading Company on State Route BB has opened and in come the regulars.
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  • It is 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and the door of Smokey Acres Trading Company on State Route BB has opened and in come the regulars.
    They take their seats in front of the fireplace facade on which a stuffed bobcat sits next to a mounted eight-point buck.
    A father and son soon come in and inquire about some antique guns hanging on the back wall.
    Behind the counter is Ralph Hess, the owner of the gun outfitter store for more than a decade.
    Interestingly, Hess, who grew up in a military family, wasn't really exposed to guns until he was in his mid-teens.
    "Dad wasn't much into guns," Hess explained. "It was when I was in the Scouts that I was first exposed to guns when our family was stationed in Germany. I fell in love with the M14 as a 14- or 15-year-old."
    Despite the fact that he had a number of friends who grew up hunting and had guns, he and his brother couldn't convince their dad to get them guns.
    "I finally got my first rifle at Twitty's Hardware. It was around $16 and you could buy a whole case of ammo at around that same price," he said.
    In his 20s, he got married, and his interest in guns waned. Once his son was through with college, he got back into guns as he had a little more money to buy things. He and his wife, Diane, started to go to gun shows. They would do around five or six a year.
    "We learned so much from those shows. It was like on-the-job training," Hess noted.
    After a 30-year career with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Hess decided to take the plunge and open his own business.
    "My banker (at the time) said that my (gun) hobby was just about to go bad on me. It will be no more fun," Hess said.
    He said, however, it has been fun.
    "It certainly has had its ups and its headaches, but for the most part I sure have enjoyed it."
    The store began in Hesses' garage. They've added onto the garage several times as business kept expanding.
    "When the economy was good, we were bringing in around $300,000 annually," said Hess. "Today we are bringing in about half of that."
    He said he lost a fair amount of business when the Briggs and Stratton engine-manufacturing plant closed in 2007.
    "I had strategically set my store hours (from 3 to 8 p.m.) so I could catch the guys coming into work at 3 and those who were getting off their shift. Also, those hours allowed the businessman to come in in the evening," he said.
    Page 2 of 2 - Vic Shaefferkotter, owner of Schaefferkoetter Electric in Rolla, has known Hess for 11 years.
    "Ralph is as good a guy you could deal with," he said. "I have been a gun guy all my life and Ralph is a wealth of information."
    Shaefferkotter added that it is not just the guns in Smokey Acres that he likes but it is a place to get all the accessories.
    "We make most of our money off the ammo and all the other stuff," said Hess.
    While he does some business from the Internet, he prides himself on being "old school."
    "I want people to handle (the guns). It is like buying a car. You would never buy a car and not drive it," he said."The big box stores like Walmart are not really a threat to me because my store is catering to such a niche market."
    The store is known in the region for providing start-to-finish customer service. If you cannot find it in the store, Hess can order it and get it into the store for you.
    Even when sales are slow, and he is alone in the store, Hess is in his element.
    "I get to play with new and used guns almost everyday," he said."Who could ask for anything more?"
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