Deer Lodge to Hollywood: Business finds niche selling teepee poles

DEER LODGE — A small family-operated business near Deer Lodge has made it “in’’ the movies.

Well, almost.

Whispering Pine Pole Co., owned by Greg and Sue Wehr, recently provided unique props for the new Disney film of “The Lone Ranger.”

“We had a short deadline to get the teepee poles, meat-drying racks, spears and tent stakes made and shipped to the New Mexico filming site,” Sue said. “The other night we took our employees and family out to dinner and to watch the movie in Butte. It was fun seeing our poles in the movie and Johnny Depp was funny.”

Previously, they supplied these materials for “Dances With Wolves.”

Reliable Tent and Awning of Billings, in business since 1945, had the contract with Silver Bullet Productions for “The Lone Ranger.”

Greg and Sue grew up in Ohio and said, “When we came to Montana, it felt like heaven.”

They worked for a time cleaning up after timber harvests and planting trees near Libby, but in 1985 established their business in Helmville. The family enterprise includes Greg and Sue and sons, Forest and Willow. In 2004 they moved to Deer Lodge in order to expand and for ease of shipping. In addition to teepee poles, they and their four employees produce posts and rails primarily for wholesale markets.

In recent years, an increasing interest in Native Americans has risen throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia that has led to increased business for the small pole company. Teepees are living artifacts that make it possible for people to somewhat experience the Plains Indian culture of 100 years ago.

For a number of years, the Wehr family has been wholesaling to people who make the canvases for teepees, including Nomadic Tipi Makers of Bend, Ore. and Colorado Yurt of Montrose, Colo.

Sue explained the tent companies take orders for both the canvas covers and the poles, but ship the poles directly to the customers. They sell more than 15,000 lodgepole pine poles each year to customers and the demand is growing, she said. Finished poles are 12 feet to 36 feet long, but the most common demand is for 24 feet or 27 feet. Each teepee requires 17 to 20 poles with a bottom of three inches and a top of one inch in diameter.

Whispering Pines lodge poles are used locally at Camp Mak-A-Dream and Grant-Kohrs Ranch, as well as for displays at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., and at Mustang Monument in Nevada where there are 115 teepees.

The long, straight, and lightweight characteristics of the poles made them ideal for horse transport and lodges for the nomadic tribes and led the early settlers to name the tree “Lodge Pole” pine.

Greg harvests lodgepole pine on state, private and occasionally on national forest lands. He says the beetle likes overgrown forests and doesn’t like sunlight, so thinning the trees lets sunlight into the forest and allows remaining trees to grow strong and healthy while discouraging the beetle.

The bark of the lodgepole pine is fairly thin and Wehrs hand peeled the poles until five years ago when they started using a mechanical debarker, and a shaper designed and built by Greg that peels the poles to the proper dimensions and leaves an appearance of being hand peeled. An employee uses a draw knife to finish the poles before bundling them for shipment. Each order is taped with various colors to identify customers for the freight company.

Peeled and unpeeled posts and rails are wholesaled to pole yards in Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota and Idaho.

Old Dominion Freight Lines of Butte hauls the teepee poles. So far this year Wehrs have shipped to every state in the country. For international shipments they have an ocean container brought to the pole yard, fill it and then ship it via Seattle.

“We have shipped to Japan, Lebanon, Germany and the Island of Cyprus. Even Britain’s Queen Elizabeth has a 16-foot teepee, with a set of our poles, in her horticultural display,’’ Sue said.

— Correspondent Pat Hansen may be reached via email at [email protected]