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Kehoe's Agate Shop owner talks gems, jewels and family history

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | March 15, 2023 12:00 AM

Every spring, Leslie Kehoe travels to eastern Montana to take in the green, rolling hills and do her favorite activity: birding.

It’s a reprieve she enjoys because running Kehoe’s Agate Shop takes a lot of time and effort — as she learned from her parents Jack and Louise Kehoe, who opened the store in 1932. Today, she operates the Bigfork shop with a small crew of employees.

She said childhood in the shop was very idyllic, growing up alongside her brother James and her younger sister Lynn. The area was much more rural in the 1960s and 70s — it was a big deal to drive to Kalispell for a treat at the old Dairy Queen or a candy bar from the grocery store. Almost every Sunday they would drive up into the mountains and get their water from a cold spring. Back at home, she said they had the run of the place.

“We played with the neighbor kids and spent time in the store in the summer … And in the winters, my dad would cut stones all winter long,” Kehoe said. “He would take a canvas tarp and put it over the doors so that the saw oil wouldn't get into the rest of the shop. That's what I remember more than anything, is just him in the backroom cutting stones.”

Walking into Kehoe’s Agate Shop is a treat for the senses — glittering, colorful gemstones fill the cases up front while dramatic geodes and fossils dazzle in the back.

There’s truly something for everyone, from beautifully crafted opal necklaces with gold chains to pieces of rough Idaho garnet. But, equally as interesting is the family who established the store as a go-to place for locals and tourists alike.

Jack Kehoe was always interested in the natural world. After his parent’s steamboat was retired he apprenticed with a man to learn the trade. He constructed the shop’s building using materials from his parent’s freight boat, which transported people and goods on Flathead Lake between the years of 1915 and 1931.

Kehoe said her father built his own stone cutting saws, embedded diamond and all. The business opened during some of the hardest economic times in the nation’s history.

“It was a lot of what people do today during recessions, turning their gold in and recycling it. And so, my father and this guy (who he apprenticed under) that was a lot of what they did. It helped them and it helped people that needed money to make ends meet,” Kehoe said.

ABSORBING EVERYTHING through “osmosis” Kehoe and her siblings watched their parents run the shop. Though she and her siblings worked in the store as they got older, it was always her brother James who was expected to take over the business one day.

James died in 2008, and according to his obituary, he was already interested in cutting and polishing gems as young as 6 years old. He went on to get manufacturing jeweler and geology degrees at the Gemological Institute of America.

Jack taught his daughters as equally as he taught James, but they always planned on having careers separate from the agate shop. And so, Kehoe took off to Montana State University and got a bachelor’s degree in business, later going to the American Graduate School for International Management in Arizona and earning her master’s degree in international business.

Soon after in 1991, bad health struck the family and she made the move back home.

“There was just a lot going on and the family just needed me to come home and help, and I just would never not do that,” Kehoe said. “Because my parents were good people and they just needed me to be here. So it was more important for me to be here than it was to go and find a job.”

Kehoe joined James in helping him run the shop while the family dealt with multiple health issues. They would spend afternoons running after their father, who was working in the shop throughout the last year of his life despite his worsening eyesight.

“It was a family business and just felt right,” she said.

GROWING UP, Kehoe remembers her dad spending quiet winter days in the shop waiting for the occasional local to stop by for a chat by the wood stove. But as time went on the shop stayed busy through the winters and business increased even more in the summertime.

The business’s longevity has provided them several benefits. One being that despite their location away from the main road, everyone knows where they are — they enjoy welcoming people back year after year.

“I had somebody that came in at the store a couple of weeks ago that had been here in the mid-1930s. And that's phenomenal, she’s in her 90s and she came back and found a pair of earrings she wanted ... And so, that's the gamut. It's still really nice after all these years to have people come back,” Kehoe said.

She also has good, long standing relationships with mineral and gem sellers. When she goes to market to purchase for the store, she visits with people she’s known for 30 plus years.

It’s not an accident that Kehoe’s feels like a treasure trove when people walk into the shop.

“You can buy average things in all sorts of places,” Kehoe said but they work to have an interesting, high quality selection of items.

“I've got a really good feel for what is right for our store. And the quality is really important. So we've always tried to be careful with quality and pricing.”

This harkens back to a policy her father had: if you price something fairly, there is no need to ever have a sale.

When it comes time to make an important purchase, like a special ring for an anniversary or finding the right engagement stone, people seek out the shop.

Kehoe said she’s gratified by that trust and hopes to continue her family legacy.

“My dad started out by being an honest person who did the right thing, and my brother and I tried to maintain that, and I certainly do after all these years,” Kehoe said.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at tinman@dailyinterlake.com.