By Louie Stout
Thomas Edison once said that the three great essentials for a person to achieve anything worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-itiveness and common sense.
Perhaps no better proverb describes Bonnie Kelley, the 82-year-old owner of Kelley’s Bait and Tackle in Lakeville, Ind.
She has owned the business for 55 years, making it one of the longest running, one-owner retail bait shop in the country.
In this age when family-owned bait shops are being squeezed out by big box stores and online shopping, that is something.
Perhaps you’ve seen her shop when traveling old U.S. 31 South prior to construction of the bypass. The business sits on the north shore of Pleasant Lake along what is now Ind. 931.
Kelley’s Bait and Tackle opened in 1965 when Bonnie and her late husband bought what once was Lakeville Bait Shop for around $11,000.
She’s kept the business going despite enduring many hardships along the way.
Prior to owning the shop, the Kelleys operated a red worm farm they created because “the economy wasn’t very good back then.”
“We had six kids and Richard got laid off a lot (from Bendix), she recalled. “He thought that was a good way to supplement his income.”
They hauled truckloads of cow manure and corn cobs into the back lot of their rural Lakeville home to promote red worm reproduction. It wasn’t long before they began plucking thousands of red worms out of the ground to sell to local bait shops.
One of those shops was Lakeville Bait.
“Richard came home one day and said the place was for sale and wanted to buy it,” she said. “So we did.”
The grandmother of 14 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren said the property was in poor shape and included other dilapidated buildings on the five-acre lot.
“It was a rundown shack and didn’t have a furnace,” she said. “We heated it with a wood-burning stove. We tore down some of the old buildings and tried fixing up the baitshop best we could, but money was tight.”
Richard’s unexpected death in 1978 complicated things. Kelley kept the business going, and on wintry days that prohibited travel, she walked two miles from home to open the shop.
“I had no choice; I had to support my family,” she said. “I’d be there until 9 p.m. seven days a week, and when I got home, I’d be so exhausted I’d collapse on the floor. Fortunately, my daughter would cook dinner for the family.”
In 1980, Kelley used her husband’s life insurance money to tear down the old building and build the business as it stands today. In 1983, her home and living quarters were added to the backside to make it more convenient.
“My son was a bricklayer and the whole family pitched in and we built it ourselves,” she said.
She rented boats, sold burning stoves and satellite dishes out of the store to help keep the cash flowing in lean years.
Kelley admits the bypass around Lakeville has hurt business, but says anglers going to Worster Lake at Potato Creek State Park, Pleasant and Riddles lakes in Lakeville and the numerous Plymouth, Ind. lakes keep her busy.
You won’t find fishing electronics or other trendy tackle in the 1,440 square foot store, but you will find all of the essentials for fishing local waters.
She carries a variety of minnows and worms for catching panfish, bass, walleye and steelhead. She maintains a small, yet well-organized display of lures and other tackle as well.
“I have customers tell me they remember coming in with their grandparents to buy our bait,” she said. “I take pride in keeping our bait fresh and maintaining a clean, well-organized shop. The key is to provide customers good service they won’t get at the bigger stores.”
Kelley’s Bait closes on Tuesdays but is open 6 days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. One of her sons helps out on occasion, but she essentially handles everything herself. She cleans minnow tanks, sorts worms, stocks shelves and maintains the grounds when she’s not helping customers.
“It’s difficult to take vacations, participate in family reunions or go to church on Sundays,” she says.
“If you’re going to own a baitshop, you have to be married to it.”
And she has no intention of giving it up.
“Handling the bait and tackle plus meeting the nice people I encounter is what keeps me healthy and mentally sharp,” she said. “People always ask me how long I intend to do it. I tell them as long as I feel good and enjoy it, why quit?”