Colorado man's tepees considered top notch

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) -- When it comes to tepees, Dave Ellis sells to both the cowboys and the Indians.

As owner of David Ellis Canvas Products, Ellis handcrafts the nomadic housing in a shop next to his Durango home.

Popularity has increased for his niche business. The cowboys are ranch hands and outfitters. The Indians include Apaches from Arizona. The tepees are even trendy among celebrities.

''It has been called the 'must have' item for 2002,'' Ellis said. Buyers include Ted Turner, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise.

''I never talk to the celebrities; it's always their ranch hands,'' Ellis said.

Ellis, 44, began his sewing career at Riverside Upholstery in Durango. He created many storefront awnings now along Durango's Main Avenue. Even the yellow coverings the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad uses in wintertime to cover its passenger cars bear his stamp.

''Durango basically supplied me with the ability to learn my trade,'' he said. ''The railroad could have farmed out their job to a corporate company, but by deciding to have them handmade locally, it gave me the chance to hone my skills by making some really oddball things.''

About eight years ago, Ellis made his first tepee. He read some how-to books and got some ideas from a period-camp, ''where guys run around in leather pants, sew moccasins, throw knives and shoot black powder guns,'' he said.

It's a constant learning curve, he said. ''Even last year, I was making a crappier product.''

Ellis is being modest, said Pete Turner, owner of Colorado Mountain Expeditions and president of the Southwest Colorado Outfitters Association.

''The guy has passion about what he does. It's his life,'' Turner said, adding about eight of 10 local outfitters purchase Ellis' tents, his main business. ''It's a good quality tent; he pays attention to details and he doesn't cut corners.''

Ellis is not part American Indian. ''But a lot of Indians say they like (his tepees),'' Turner said.

After years of sewing tents and tepees in his basement, Ellis recently built a shop on his property for his business. He has one part-time and one full-time employee.

Rather than mass-produce his work, Ellis prefers the slower pace that allows him to maintain a high quality. The basic shape is the same as historical tepees but Ellis prefers patterns based on the Sioux and Northern Plains Indian styles.

The base of the tepee ranges from 12 feet in diameter to 30 feet. Ellis uses all natural duck fabric, which is similar to canvas but finer and lighter in weight. About 75 yards of fabric are needed.

The frame is built from lodgepole pine. The tree doesn't grow in Southwest Colorado, so Ellis has them hauled in from Montana. Ellis said the Montanan who makes the deliveries lives in a tepee.

''I don't think he has lived in a house for 20 years,'' he said.

It takes about six hours to make a tepee, which sells for between $600 and $2,700. Painting the tepees takes an additional 16-20 hours. He makes one or two tepees and about 15 tents a month.

The tepees are not easily moved, he said. ''If I went camping, I wouldn't haul one in,'' he said.

The biggest misconception people have is that a tepee is dry as a bone, Ellis said. Because a tepee is designed to have an open fire, it needs smoke flaps at the top.

Invariably during rain, some water comes in through the flaps and drips down the poles. Still, that's what a tepee is all about, Ellis said.

''You have to be willing to put up with a little bit of inconvenience,'' he said.

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