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Roadside history lesson

By Scott Thoma


The completed tipi on the west s ide of the Outdoor Inn campground just west of Benson has become a showpiece in the area this summer. Photo by Scott Thoma

Those traveling along Highway 12 just west of Benson will likely notice traffic slowing down or pulling off to the side of the road to get a look at an Indian Lodge located on the south side of the highway.


“My kids wanted to take a look at it,” said one father, who had pulled over. “It’s not something you see every day along the road. It’s really interesting.”


Some of the passersby take photos of the actual-sized replica of the Plains Indian tipi that was once used by John and Sandy Hutchinson for educational purposes, rendezvous outings across the country, or as a showpiece.


The Indian Lodge was set up this summer by Dave Berens and Kevin Wilts, friends of the late John Hutchinson and his wife. It was their first time setting it up. Wilts now maintains possession of the Indian Lodge, or tipi. It was set up a few hundred yards west of Dave and Lexi Berens’ Outdoor Inn Campground.


Berens recently asked Wilts if the tipi could be set up next to his campground as a conversation piece. Wilts readily agreed and the two men went to work setting it up.


Dave Berens talks about how the tipi was assembled using poles and ropes. Photo by Scott Thoma

“It took us about an hour and a half to set up,” Berens said. “We had a good teacher. I remember when I was a lot younger, John would show me how to set the tipi up. He would play (Native American) music while he was setting it up and everything.”


This Indian Lodge is placed among natural prairie grasses and trees that give it an even more authentic look.


“It’s very sturdy,” said Wilts. “It will withstand strong winds,”


John Hutchinson, who passed away in 2017, was a gunsmith whose focus was on building and restoring muzzleloaders. He worked and retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His passion was nature and teaching others about how to care for it.


“John bought the tipi from someone in Walker in 1972,” said Sandy, who lives a mile south of the Berens’ campground along the Chippewa River in a place that was called “Hutch’s Outpost. “He made some repairs to it along the way, but it’s pretty much the same as it was when he bought it. We used it when we would go to various rendezvous.”


Rendezvous are still popular among historians. Those involved in joining the various types of rendezvous re-enactment outings dress and live as others did over 150 years ago. They are not allowed any modern amenities during their stay, and must use only those food and clothing items available during the time period they represent. It’s an interesting and educational experience for both those participating and the people who attend. Day visitors can watch demonstrations on crafts, tool making, blacksmithing, weaving, cooking, and more.


Sandy and John Hutchinson as they appeared at a re-enactment Rendezvous. Contributed photo

“We really enjoyed attending the Rendezvous together,” said Sandy. “John loved to tell people about his guns and the tipi.”


The Hutchinsons’ Indian Lodge has all the specifics of a true Native American tipi, including the correct number of poles, rope wraps, rain pegs and more. Once you step inside, the lodge appears much larger than it does on the outside.


“The door should face east,” said Wilts. “Then you put the north and south poles up. All the poles are put together in a certain way, and the rope should wrap around the poles a certain number of times. We follow it according to how it should be set up.”


The tipi doors were set up to face east in order to face the rising sun while also avoiding the harsh west winds. This made it warm inside the tipi, and the wind didn’t get through the entrance flaps as much.


Kevin Wilts, left, and Dave Berens construct the tipi along Highway 12 on the west edge of Benson. Photo by Scott Thoma

Native Americans would tie in “rain pegs” along each pole in order to keep rain off the occupants of the tipi. Instead of rain dripping off the poles and onto those individuals inside, the rain would instead follow the “rain pegs” to the ground.


There are also smoke poles that allow the smoke from an inside fire to travel safely outside, even in a rainstorm, so those inside don’t get inundated with smoke.


“We don’t give the Native Americans enough credit,” said Wilts. “They knew what they were doing and could make things work well with the little resources they had.”


There are painted symbols inside and outside of the lodge, including a thunderbird.

Primarily, a tipi was a conical tent covered with dressed skins. A conical framework of long slender poles was erected and the cover raised into place. The edges of the cover were staked down and the poles supporting the “ears” were put in place. The “ears” were designed to keep the wind out of the smoke hole at the top and were moved about by the outside poles.


Certain tribes would tie up four poles as a support to the others, while other tribes used three poles in a tripod formation. The tipi was designed to disassemble quickly in case of enemy attack or to follow game migrations, especially buffalo.


“The Native American women were in charge of setting the tipi up while the men were hunting or fighting,” Wilts explained.


The opening at the top of the tipi is designed and constructed in such a manner that it prevents smoke buildup, while also limiting the rain getting inside. Photo by Scott Thoma

The fire was built in the center of the tipi, and furs used as bedding were spread on the ground around the sides. The head of the family usually sat near the rear of the tipi facing the door.


A lining on the inside walls of the tipis would be used during the winter months to keep it warmer inside.


Berens has had numerous people inquire about the Indian Lodge at his campground.


“We want people to ask questions and learn about it,” said Berens. “That’s why we have it he. We will also rent it out if anyone wants to stay in it for a night or a weekend.”


John Hutchinson would have been proud.

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