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Love for leather

Dan Markell holds a little cylinder case he made while in the U.S. Army. It was the first thing he made from leather. Photo by Scott Thoma

Green Valley man started leather crafting while in the service

Looking for something to occupy his free time while also earning a little spending money during his training period in the U.S. Army, Dan Markell turned his sights toward leather.

“My interest in leather crafting goes back to 1960 when I was in seventh-grade at Marshall Junior High,” said Markell, who lives outside Green Valley in southwestern Minnesota. “We did some very basic leatherwork.”

Markell has now been working with leather for parts of seven decades. Today, he still makes things out of leather in his modest shop in the basement of the home where he and his wife of 45 years, Arlene, live with their golden retriever, Cooper.

“I don’t do it for money now,” he said. “If someone requests something, I’ll try to make it for them. And I still make things for myself when needed.”

After graduating from Marshall in 1966, Markell enlisted in the Army and following basic training at Fort Bliss in Texas, was assigned to Fort Eustis in Virginia for training as a helicopter repairman/crewman.

“Having some free time, the monthly salary of a private E-2, and because there was a craft shop within walking distance, leather working seemed to be the logical choice,” explained Markell, who is currently a life insurance sales representative for United Catholic Financial.

The first item Markell made while in the service was a cylinder-shaped case to house his aftershave bottle.

“I still have it here,” he said, proudly pulling it off a shelf in his small shop at his home. “From there, I branched out to making billfolds, book covers, checkbook holders and other items requested by my fellow classmates in the service.”

Markell made a little extra money for himself, but was enjoying the craft as a hobby even more.

“It was at this time that I taught myself to do fancy lacing,” he said. “My favorite thing when doing lacing is to ask people if they can spot where I started, where I finished, and where there is a splice.”

Markell was told by the people in the places he purchased lace to measure the area to be laced and multiply it by six.

“Sometimes I would have an 8-foot piece of lace and it got to be a pain to lace all that at once,” he said. “So I taught myself a way to splice the lace, into smaller lengths while still keeping it tight and not being able to see where the splice is.”

After graduation at Fort Eustis, Markell transferred to Fort Benning Army base in Georgia, a staging area for entire helicopter companies before being deployed to Vietnam.

“When I was there, I started making sandals, knife sheaths and shoulder holsters,” he said.

Markell is fortunate that he is still able to dabble in leather crafting after a near-death experience while serving in Vietnam.

On May 8, 1968, Markell and four others were shot down over Can Tho, Vietnam while hauling supplies to construct a helipad in a U.S. CH47 Chinook helicopter.

With the helicopter flying at around 1,000 feet and nearing its destination, bullet holes suddenly ripped dime-sized openings through the bottom of the back of the helicopter near where Markell was situated.

“We didn’t hear any gunfire because it was so loud in the helicopter,” Markell recalled. “We just saw these holes appearing everywhere.”

And with the hydraulics hit and fluid pouring out, the pilots had little choice but to crash-land the helicopter.

“They spotted a clearing near a river to try and land,” Markell recalled. “Had we been over the mountainous region, it would have been a much worse outcome.”

With the pilots able to get the helicopter to the ground, the five aboard quickly exited and watched from about 100 yards away as the chopper they were aboard moments earlier burned up within minutes.

“It was a miracle that none of us were hit,” Markell said, his emotions forcing a momentary pause.

The pilots had sent a “Mayday” message prior to their forced landing. Fortunately, the helicopter had flown far enough away from the Viet Cong so they were no longer a threat. And within an hour, two Air Force rescue helicopters were circling overhead.

Markell was discharged from the military in 1969 and then went to college at Southwest State University (now Southwest Minnesota State University) in Marshall.

“This was a time when the ‘hippie’ culture was in full bloom,” he laughed. “And the market for leather headbands, fringed purses, bracelets and other things was in demand. I would advertise in the school paper.”

Today, the Markells also enjoy restoring antique furniture, mainly old trunks. And Dan can often be found in his shop constructing sturdy leather handles for the antiquated trunks.

“The antique restoration also goes back to the early ‘60s when I took shop classes in high school,” he explained. “Starting in the early ‘70s, my wife and I started collecting antiques, and most had to be stripped, repaired or both.

“From that time on, we have worked on almost any type of wooden furniture. Steamer trunks are my favorite, and through the years, I have worked on most every type of trunk imaginable.”

Dan Markell works on a leather project in his shop. Photo by Scott Thoma

Markell now mainly makes “specialty cases for just about anything you can name.”

“I make things for family and friends now like belts, checkbook covers, holsters and book covers,” he said. “I still enjoy it a lot.”

Markell also made a 2-inch wide camera belt with a heavy-duty buckle for a Murray County newspaper reporter a few years ago that included several pouches to hold cameras, lenses and other items.

And as he spends quiet time alone working in his shop, he often reverts back to the day that he and others were shot down in Vietnam.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he insisted, pausing while he wrestled with his emotions. “So I don’t let little things bother me anymore.”

And with that, he hopped aboard his riding lawn mower and put on his ear muffs before calling for Cooper, who often sits on the front of the mower and rides along.

“I’m thankful for each day I have,” he concluded.

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