MILFORD, Neb. — In the shop, there are a couple of guys huddled over sewing machines, carefully lining up large swaths of cream-colored fabric that drape off the tables.
It's not immediately clear what they're making, but you start to get the picture after climbing a set of creaky wooden stairs to a space that's part office, part Old West trading post. Up there, Don Strinz has a computer and a desk covered with plans and paperwork, but he's also got shelves full of wool blankets and buffalo bones, containers of black rifle powder and baskets of colorful beads. Tacked to the wall is an old newspaper photo where he's dressed in a fringed leather jacket, one eye squeezed shut, his finger on the trigger of a revolver.
Thousands of teepees and tents have come out of this place, bound for parks, campsites and movie sets, but this is no big factory operation.
In the more than four decades since Strinz made his first teepee — and the 24 years since he decided to make teepees his full-time job — the 66-year-old has become widely known among outdoor enthusiasts and re-enactors around the country. But Don Strinz Tipi — the business uses an alternate spelling of teepee — remains a small operation run by a man who still seems surprised that he's been able to build a life out of something he enjoys.
"My philosophy is that there's no man more fortunate than a man who can make a living at his hobby and no man less fortunate than the man who turns his hobby into work," he said. "I've been fortunate to make a living at my hobby."
In a way, the business grew out of series of problems.
When he was working as a tool maker in the early 1960s, Strinz and his wife, Donna, often spent time camping, even though she often got sick from time in the cold, damp air. But when a friend offered to let the couple stay in a teepee — a shelter that keeps the air dry because of its design — the problem disappeared.
Back home, the Strinzes found a copy of a book called "The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction and Use," and made one of their own. Not long after, however, Don set up the shelter too close to a campfire.
When he started working on a replacement, a friend asked if he could have one, too. Word got around that Don Strinz knew how to make a good teepee. And he started making tents of all kinds: officer's tents, pyramid-shaped tents, wedge tents.
For 20 years, he worked at New Holland Machine Co. in Grand Island, Neb., making teepees on the side, but in 1987 Strinz decided to try running his own business. Don Strinz Tipi began in a Grand Island basement as "Lease-A-Lodge," a rental program through which Strinz not only rented out his teepees but also set them up. It was a big hit — some weekends, a couple dozen setups — but also a lot of work.
"I've probably set up more teepees than anyone in history," Strinz said.
But the effort got him noticed by people in the market for teepees, including the producers of "Dances With Wolves," the 1990 Western starring Kevin Costner. Strinz made several teepees for a couple of scenes in the movie.
Within a few years, he'd outgrown his workshop in Grand Island. In 1994, Strinz relocated his family and his teepee-making operation to the farm he'd grown up on in Milford, about a half-hour west of Lincoln.
At his high point, Strinz had seven employees and was making about 700 teepees and tents each year.
The teepees range in size from 10 feet to 22 feet and in price from $825 to nearly $2,500. Tents sell for $250 to $3,200, depending on the size and style.
Strinz's primary material is a mildew-resistant, flame-retardant, water-repellent canvas called Sunforger.
Strinz has a website and catalog but said he has more success from more basic forms of advertising: "I sell to one guy and he tells somebody else about it."
In 2002, somebody told the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games.
When he got the order from something called the "SLOC," Strinz didn't think much of it. It wasn't until he'd already made the teepees and was sending the bill when he figured out his teepees were going to be front and center for TV broadcasts from the Games.
More recently, however, Strinz said the demand for primitive shelters seems to be dropping. When he was making 700 products a year, about 75 to 100 of those were teepees. So far this year, he's made 12 teepees. He'll do a few hundred tents, he figures.
Strinz doesn't think the drop is necessarily about the recession. The bigger issue, he said, is that the people who were interested in historical re-enactments are getting older. He estimates that 80 percent of the teepees he sells now are for people who want to put them in their backyards as a playhouse for their children or grandchildren.
"The younger generations are doing this," he said, miming a cellphone user typing out a text message with his thumbs. "They're not going out in the open. When I grew up, you'd get a gun, you'd hunt, fish, get dirty."
Garrett McCall, one of Strinz's three employees, agreed. At 27, McCall said, he's usually among the youngest people at the buckskinning and rendezvous events he attends for work. He's been working for Strinz since high school and said he can't imagine doing anything else.
"You have to have the ability to start a project and go through the finish," he said. "I take a pile of canvas and turn it into a tent."
His Milford High classmate Derek Grauel, 28, commutes from Omaha to spend his days sewing the heavy-duty fabric and laying it out on a floor marked with a grid.
"It's an opportunity you don't get anywhere else," he said. "Don's pretty much a legend."
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