Tepees: latest in cheap, chic shelter

Mary Lakes has lived in a tepee for three summers and may try to make it through this winter. This young lady is one of a growing number of people who are turning to tepees for temporary shelter.

"There is something magical about living in a tepee," Miss Lakes says. "It is as close as you can get to nature while still having shelter."

People are buying tepees in growing numbers for many different reasons, believes Mark Welander, owner of Blue Star Tepees and one of a handful of tepee manufacturers in the nation.

Mr. Welander expects to sell more than 500 tepees this year, up from 400 last year and only 30 in 1975.

"Many people are trying to get back to the land. But with high prices and interest rates, by the time they get the land they can't afford a house. So they buy a tepee to live in while they build their home," he says.

Other people are buying tepees for summer places or as novel guest quarters.

His tepees cost from $400 to $800 and come in a range of sizes. They are made of canvas, a material that Indians adopted rapidly in the late 1800s. The largest -- "medicine lodge" size -- is 24 feet in diameter and two stories high.

Mr. Welander has sold tepees to people in every state, and in Europe. His customers range from "what you might call a hippy" to doctors, lawyers, and judges, he says.

Increasingly, people are erecting their tepees on wooden decks, says Mr. Welander. Some also build a loft into the larger sizes.

With a wooden deck and an "ozan" -- a fabric half ceiling -- tepees can be kept warm with a fire pit or wood stove quite easily, even in the severe Montana winters, explains the manufacturer. However, they cool down rapidly once the fire goes out.

There are a number of different tepee designs. Among afficionados, those of the Cheyenne and Sioux are considered the ultimate designs.

Conical skin tents are found in a number of parts of the world, explain Reginald and Glady's Laubin in their book, "The Indian Tipis." But "compared with the true Plains Indian tipi, those primitive conical skin tents are only miserable, smoky dens," the experts argue.

An example of their virtue came during the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens, which closed Missoula down for several days.

"Homeowners were complaining about the way the ash filtered into their houses , but tepee dwellers reported that their tepees kept as clear as can be," report Mr. Welander.

Of coursE, there are a number of drawbacks. There is no indoor plumbing. Most do not have electricity.

Yet, for nature lovers, tepees definitely have a number of compensations.

"When I more into the tepee, I really mellow out," says Miss Lakes.

This summer she has had a chipmunk that peeks into the tepee in the morning but otherwise has not bothered her.

"It's hard to imagine a more pleasant way to start the day," she exclaims.

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