By Fara Warner
It’s not a word most would use to define the rugged wilderness of places like the Rocky Mountains. In fact, most would seek shelter from them, not in them.
In fact, for much of American history, we simply hoped to survive the wild. Then as the 1800s progressed, we sought to control it and then own it.
Americans did set aside wild places as national parks, but by the mid-20th century much of the country was being paved over, as cities and towns were knit together with concrete ribbons of highways and roads. Today, we rarely, if ever, find ourselves in true wilderness.
The few who do drive off the roads, put boot to trail, are often there to consume nature quickly, popping up a neon-colored nylon tent for a night or two, only to return to their frantic modern lives.
That’s not the reality for Bill Leingang, a man who finds refuge from our so-called civilized world deep in the American wilderness. For him, camping isn’t for a weekend, but for weeks at a time.
He camps in canvas tents manufactured by Denver Tent Co. almost the same way the company’s founder made them in 1890.
He does it not to escape from life, but to reconnect with it.
Leingang began camping more than 15 years ago as a way to heal from illness and reconnect with his family. A former Steadicam operator in the film industry, he contracted dysentery while shooting on location. He sought out camping as a way to recover and heal.
His first tents were the flimsy inexpensive nylon versions that lasted maybe a season or two. They certainly were not meant for the weeks-long camping he dreamed of. “I wanted to see how far I could go, how long we could live in a tent,” he says. “I was challenged by that (idea).”
At a sportsmen’s expo, he came across the walled canvas tents Denver Tent had been making under the Colorado Tent name for close to 125 years. With their simple flat-wall design, the tents would be as at home in the wilderness of the 1800s as they are today. He bought one to test and pitched it out on the prairie one summer day. As suppertime came around on the first evening, the weather turned.
“The wind came up and stayed up,” Leingang remembers. “It gusted from 45 miles per hour to 65. I thought (the tent) would fail. But the Denver Tent stayed tall. We stuck it out for an entire week.”
Nature may be healing, but it’s also dangerous, Leingang had learned.
Humans must have some kind of shelter to survive in the wilderness. For much of human history, those shelters were made from nature itself. Cotton and hemp were woven into tight waterproof fabrics and then stretched over wooden poles to create the structures that are found from the Sahara Desert to the steppes of Central Asia.
Those were the materials that Alfred S. Proctor used when he opened the Denver Tent Company on Denver’s Arapahoe Street in 1890 with 10 of his Cornell University colleagues as investors.
For the next five decades, Denver Tent prospered as Americans shifted their focus on the wilderness from fear and control to conservation and camping.
Proctor sold the company in 1939 just as new, cheaper and lighter materials like nylon and plastic were starting to be used in tents.
But Denver Tent has survived that competition. Even though it has had several owners since Proctor sold the company, they have all stayed true to making Denver tents out of canvas and with as many American-made materials as possible. That’s true of the company’s newest owners, Laurie and Kevin Womer, who bought the company in August.
Kevin, an engineer by training, plans to keep making canvas tents with the same care and quality Proctor did more than 100 years ago, but hopes to update the engineering and manufacturing processes. Right now, the tents are custom-made by hand and sold through the company’s website.
Making canvas tents in America can be challenging, especially when it comes to finding raw materials domestically. Denver Tent has had to turn to India for its canvas because as production manager Chris Gilmore says, “We’ve ruined our textile business in America.” Yet he still searches for a U.S. supplier every chance he gets. “When I have five minutes of spare time, I’m on Google trying to find American-made canvas,” he says.
But almost everything else in the tents is from America. The industrial strength zippers are from YKK, a Japanese company that prides itself on making its zippers in the U.S., and window screens come from Phifer Co. based in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Tent poles come from either rolled oak poles or aluminum rails, both of which can be found in hardware stores. The tents were designed that way so that losing a rail or pole doesn’t mean throwing the tent away or waiting for Denver Tent to ship another one out. That does mean there are Denver Tents out there that are decades old and people don’t often replace them.
That hasn’t made it easy for Denver Tent in an era of cheaper, disposable products from overseas. The recession certainly didn’t help, Gilmore says. Before 2008, the company was twice the size it is today with more than two dozen employees making tents.
They are down to just 12 people tucked away in a small manufacturing space on Denver’s industrial east side. They work on machines that are 40 to 50 years old. They depend on tent patterns drawn in pencil in notebooks and tended to by 78-year-old George Ortega, the company’s master canvas cutter.
But what they create is a tent that feels at home in the wilderness. The tallow-colored canvas picks up the light from a sunset or campfire. The softness of the cotton feels a part of nature, not distinct from it like nylon does. And the oak poles point to the sky like the trees next to them.
Last summer, Deborah Norris was heading back to her job as production supervisor at Denver Tent after taking a vacation with her family in Wisconsin. She wasn’t feeling well, her back hurt, still she was looking forward to returning to work.
But it would be a year before she stepped foot inside the small factory. The cancer she had battled in 2007 had come back. But for the past year, Denver Tent has held her job for her, providing refuge and the hope of coming back to work when she regained her strength.
It wasn’t a hard decision to keep Debbie's job open for her because of her knowledge base and skill set, according to Jeff Greene, the company’s general manager. They consider her irreplaceable, he wrote in an email. “Since Debbie’s leaving in July of 2013, Denver Tent has not been the same. You can’t lose someone of that caliber and not be affected.”
That sense of belonging and care was obvious when a little over a year after leaving for what she thought was a vacation, Norris was ready to visit, although not ready to work. The first visit was just an hour or two of catching up. “There was a lot of crying that day,” she says. During her second visit, she slowly made her way across the factory floor to Ortega, who wrapped her in his arms for a hug.
“A year has gone by, they can go on their own now,” she says, sitting not far from the desk that is still considered hers. “But they let me know that they still need my ‘okays’ as a supervisor. I will be back.”
When Norris comes back, she may be working on yet another tent for Leingang.
Since buying his first Denver Tent more than a decade ago, the cameraman-turned-mountain man has bought another dozen from them. He has small two-person bivouac tents that resemble tipis and are constructed of just canvas, wood and aluminum. His biggest tents hold more than a dozen people and have floors, windows and stoves.
Obviously, Leingang is doing more than camping with his family. A few years ago, he started Rough Riders Back Country Adventures after friends kept telling their friends about the amazing times they were having with him in the wilderness. Starting a business out of something he loved—something he found refuge in—seemed a natural progression.
“Being out in the woods is a place where we can get in touch with ourselves,” he says. “You are away from society, but not running from society. If you’re an introvert, you can rest your soul. If you’re an extrovert, you can finally relax and let your guard down. Nature is a healthy place to be. It’s where we were meant to be.”
Fara Warner is the editorial director of This Built America and Aol Tech, which includes TechCrunch and Engadget. She has worked for the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company and was the 2007-2009 Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan.
Photography and Videography by Man Made Content.