Over four decades, Dan and Emma Kigar have seen their products grow from a fringe interest appealing to back-to-the-land activists and Native American culture enthusiasts to mainstream popularity. Their yurt, tipi and tent kits are now in demand for multiple purposes by a wide-ranging clientele. This year, the founders of Colorado Yurt Company celebrate their 40th year in business.
“That’s been an amazing kind of change to see, because now we do have so many different types of customers,” Dan Kigar said from his yurt office in front of the manufacturing facility in Montrose. “For example, in 1994, we were on the cover of Architectural Digest with a tipi up in Aspen in the Starwood subdivision. That was kind of the signal that the buyers were going to change. The tipi in Starwood was a guy’s cigar smoking lodge kind of thing, where he pressed a button and a TV popped out. After that, we sold a bunch of tipis (to another wealthy, prominent Aspen resident). We have always sold to a lot of campgrounds and state parks, but fewer and fewer times do we have a 20-something couple show up and say, ‘We want to live in a tipi.’”
The first tipis
The couple made their first tipis in their 20s. Emma said they were “hippies living in tents” — the traditional, Native American kind. Having met in Colorado in 1973, they moved to Michigan and lived in a tipi on an “unbelievable 4,500 acres full of wildlife” while she went to school.
Dan, originally from Indiana, had already graduated from Evergreen College in Washington state with a bachelor’s degree in Irish literature. Emma, originally from upstate New York, was going to the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan, pursuing a degree in environmental advocacy.
“I loved what I studied but I couldn’t see myself moving to a city, just to be where the work was,” she said. “I had two dreams: I dreamt about making things, and about living in mountains way up high.”
While at university, she heard about an alternative high school in Ann Arbor that did not have a science program. “The kids and teachers faced a lot of challenges. I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Science is the most fun part of school,’” she recalled.
The school was called Earthworks, in recognition of a transformative adventure the students had taken to the prehistoric earth mounds in Ohio. There was no classroom space for teaching science, so Dan and Emma solved their problem by making a tipi to use as a classroom. Emma ended up teaching there until she earned her degree and they returned to Colorado in 1976.
Soon after settling into a newly handmade tipi by a creek at 11,000 feet in Ouray County, the couple fielded requests from five friends who asked them to make tipis, too. “We were not business people. We were more on the creative side. We just started sourcing canvas, bought a roll of canvas and started building. We went from there, rented a shop, put together an ad and were in business,” Dan said.
The company, originally named Earthworks Tipis, was a traditional mail-order business, selling through ads in magazines like Mother Earth News in its early years. “We used to go to the post office box and see if a check was in there. For awhile, we didn’t even have a phone. People would send a dollar for a brochure. We sent them a brochure and they could mail in questions,” he explained.
And along comes the yurt
“I didn’t ever think we would be doing it this long, but what 25-year-old thinks about being 65?” asked Dan.
The couple no longer lives in that tipi, which they remember fondly with many stories. There were the winter tasks of trekking groceries and supplies a mile uphill with the help of their dog and a sled, and carving out a spiral staircase in the mounds of snow to get to the door, which ended up 11 feet under snow banks. Then, they received midnight visits from a mysterious pine marten, a mink-like animal about two feet long, which burrowed through the snow and snuck between the tipi wall and liner to steal dog food.
Now, the Kigars live north of Ridgway in a traditional house, designed and built with the help of friends. A yurt, 12 feet from the front door, is used as a studio and a guest bedroom, as well as for meditation, gardening, yoga, dining, parties and any activity that requires the extra indoor space.
“We thought we would continue to live in a tipi or a yurt in the backwoods and build a couple of structures a year, but the popularity of our products dictated our lifestyle in a way,” Emma said.
“It was the reality of running a business,” Dan added. “We wanted to start a studio where we could create a bunch of stuff, but that wasn’t necessarily a sustainable model. Now instead of being in a workshop, we are in front of computer screens quite a bit, although we do come on weekends and do creative things here.”
They continue to design unique tents and dwelling prototypes, such as a “very oriental-looking, pagoda-style” creation that’s in the works. He continues to dabble in woodwork while she continues to sew. They are also longtime backcountry skiers, and Emma tries to make it to the Telluride ski area a couple of times a week, too.
They raised one son who is happily married with one son of his own. He lives in Ann Arbor and is studying for a doctorate in Islamic studies at his mother’s alma mater.
The company is comfortably settled into its sixth location after stints around the Uncompahgre River Valley and even in Alma, near Breckenridge. Yurt production began in 1983 and the company name became Colorado Yurt Company in 2001, though tipis continue to be the most sold products in addition to canvas wall tents used for “glamping” (glamour, or high-end, resort-style camping).
Memorable faces and places
Dan and Emma employ 32 people, including skilled craftsmen, sales force and administration. Many have worked there for years, including Clint Huddleston.
Huddleston started with the company when he was 23 years old, and he was one of only four employees. Over 27 years and four different facilities, he moved from machine operation, mostly sewing tipis, to working on yurts and tents, managing the three production areas. Now he is a production support technician.
“It’s a great place to work, and a very unique job,” he said. “Years ago, when someone asked what I do, and I said, ‘I make yurts,’ they said, ‘What?’ Now, typically the response is: ‘I know what those are; those are cool!’”
Among the reasons for the increased awareness of their products, the Colorado Yurt Company was featured on a TV episode of “How It’s Made,” a Science Channel series. The show’s filming was among Huddleston’s most enjoyable experiences at the company. The Ouray resident also feels “very fortunate” to have traveled “from Canada to Mexico, Florida to California and everywhere in between” to help set up tipis, yurts and tents as well as to train in sewing production, maintenance and repairs.
He said it would take a couple weeks to tell all the stories of his memorable occasions at work. One memory at the top of his mind is a trip with Dan to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to repair tents at a beachside resort that had been damaged in a hurricane.
“We brought a sewing machine in pieces and a bunch of supplies, and repaired 40 tents in eight days. It was really great, except for one night when I woke up and mosquitoes had bitten me so bad, I thought I had malaria. We went to a doctor in the village, and it was quite a memorable adventure,” he recalled.
He also pointed to meeting and getting to know the company’s many interesting customers as a highlight of his career. Emma agreed. “We have had pretty interesting people walk into the shop throughout the years,” she said.
From Dennis Weaver to Alec Baldwin, Neil Diamond, Neil Young and Dan Fogelberg, a panoply of celebrities has purchased products from the Colorado Yurt Company, often several tipis or yurts at a time, and often returning for more. “We’ve just met wonderful, wonderful people who have been great friends over the years,” Emma added.
In addition to use on private properties and personal residences, as well as resorts and parks, the sturdy, cloth structures are used temporarily at music festivals and historic reenactments. They can be found in every natural setting and some urban settings in dozens of countries from Costa Rica to Portugal and Eastern Europe to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Japan.
Although it’s difficult to pick favorites after producing around 15,000 tipis and 3,500 yurts plus an unknown number of tents, with a total of more than two million yards of material, one of Dan’s “most fabulous experiences” with the company’s yurts was at an exhibition at the Grand Palais, a famed, historic exhibition hall and museum complex in Paris. In 2009, 26 yurts were set up as video theaters for the “7 Billion Others” project by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Over five weeks, 150,000 visitors entered the yurts to view 6,000 interviews filmed in 84 countries. From the first visit by the team of architects to the trip to the exhibit, it was amazing, Dan said.
“We’ve been learning how to get it right for 40 years. Now we’re moving forward, still learning. Our mission is still to help can-do dreamers and innovators create their unique space, while utilizing environmentally friendly practices and materials,” the Kigars state on their web page about their recent People & Planet Green Business Award.
During this momentous anniversary year, Dan added, “We want to use our experience and longevity to promote sustainability all along our supply chain, from the mills and lumber operations right out to our customers.”
Asked about the future, he replied, “Grandparenthood changes everything! I thought I knew what love was... Other than that, keep on keepin’ on. There’s never a boring day around this place. Thanks, Universe!”