|April 3, 2014
Gray Wolf Trading Company sells custom tipis all over the world
By Adriana Fehrs
A hand crafted, hand painted six-foot tipi stands outside of the Gray Wolf Trading Company of Polson. The Native American owned business has been in operation since 1996, only using word-of-mouth advertising, and recently their website, to market their business. (Adriana Fehrs photo)
POLSON — Tribal members Larry and Jolene Gauthier established the ‘Gray Wolf Trading Company’ in 1996, and they have continued to operate a successful business on the Flathead Indian Reservation since its inception. Monday through Friday, nine a.m. to five p.m. you can walk into the shop and be greeted by their large Newfoundland dog they call “Hoss”, and their older Labrador named “Missy”, whom eagerly roll onto their back as a welcome for you to rub their bellies. The Light catches some of the crafts they have in the front of the shop; there is also a large inventory of custom embroidered clothes. In the back, you can see the large machinery they use to sew together canvas to make tipis.
The Gray Wolf Trading Company builds Native American tipis, ranging from four feet to twenty-six feet in diameter; create custom embroidery and fusion printing; and dabble in retail sales of local Native American crafts.
Larry Gauthier, co-owner of Gray Wolf Trading Company, has lived in Montana all his life. He grew up in Arlee, and went on to join the U.S. Navy. After his time in the military he owned and operated several business over a 43-year time span.
Jolene Gautheir, co-owner of the Gray Wolf Trading Company of Polson, stands at the front of the shop where they sell hand crafted Native American arts, and custom embroidered clothing. (Adriana Fehrs photo)
Before Larry Gauthier got into the business of tipi making, he owned several businesses in Polson, dabbling in different fields of work. Larry says he’s done a little of everything, “I’ve owned several food businesses, bars, and before starting up Gray Wolf Trading Company I owned another upholstery business called Town and Country Upholstery.” Larry later sold his business to his son Travis Gauthier, who renamed it ‘Dynamic Design’.
Most of his training has been in upholstery. While owning Town and Country Upholstery, individuals brought their tipis into the shop to have them repaired, which helped him gain experience in tipi construction. “I learned a lot about stress points, and spots on tipis that tend to tear,” Larry says.
Jolene Gauthier, previously Jolene Nelson, traveled around with her family in her youth. She attended High School in Miles City and graduated from Custer County District High in 1974. From there, she traveled back to the Flathead Indian Reservation. Jolene has had several jobs around the reservation. Jolene says, “I’ve bounced around, working in several positions for CSKT.” Jolene manages a busy schedule - she currently works for the CSKT Housing Authority while also co-owning the Gray Wolf Trading Company, where she does custom embroidery, fusion printing, tipi construction, and tipi painting.
A sunny day shines down upon the front of the Gray Wolf Trading Company of Polson. The business, established in 1996, is owned by tribal members Larry and Jolene Gautheir. (Adriana Fehrs photo)
Larry and Jolene met back in 1994, when Jolene was helping Larry repair tipis for Town and Country Upholstery. Shortly after, they married in 1995, and then started up the Gray Wolf Trading Company together.
They sold both of their houses and bought a new house in February 1996, where they constructed custom tipis out of their garage. When the old Wal-Mart was built, their property underwent city construction, taking away their garage. They then moved into a thirty feet by fifty feet shop and later added a thirteen feet by twenty-two feet room.
They currently rent out the rest of their property to the Cavalry Baptist Church, and their son Wes Hamann, owner and operator of Rock Bottom Reef.
When they first started up their business, they focused on Tipi making, but in 2001 they signed a contract with Darden Restaurant Inc., where they produced aprons for several restaurants like Olive Garden, Disney Land, and Red Lobster. They say during that time, they had up to thirty-five employees. In 2008 production came to a halt when they lost their contract to a Chinese company.
A lone tip, constructed and painted by Larry and Jolene Gautheir, sits in the shade of the summer trees. Larry and Jolene, tribal members and owners of the Gray Wolf Trading Company, construct and paint custom tipis out of Polson. (Adriana Fehrs photo)
After 2008, they refocused on making Tipis. Gray Wolf Trading Company sells tipis ranging from 4 feet in diameter, up to their largest tipis at twenty-six feet in diameter. “A lot of our customers can chose to buy just a tipi canvas or a custom painted tipi canvas, or they can buy the canvas and poles. We have lots of options for different tipi kits a customer can buy.” Jolene says. A typical set would include poles, the tipi canvas, a tipi cover and liner, a canvas door cover, liner rope, tipi stakes, and wood dowels. They say they can paint what ever their customers want; either they design it, or customers can choose to make their own design. Jolene says, “I lay out the design, it definitely takes time and work, and Larry helps me paint.” Larry says, “Yes, I’m more of a paint-by-numbers guy.” They say not only do they sell tipi sets, they can also help customers set them up for a fee, “anywhere from Whitefish to Hamilton, we can come over and set up the tipi for you.”
Most of their customers come from out of state, but they have sold tipis to people all over they world. They have sold to customers as far away as Australia and Germany. “Last fall, we were really excited that we sold a tipi to a museum down in Florida,” says Jolene.
The Gray Wolf Trading Company has crafted custom tipis since its beginning in 1996. Owners Larry and Jolene Gautheir learned the art of tipi making back when Larry owned ‘Town and Country Upholstery’. Larry says, “we use to have a lot of people come in to have their tipi canvas repaired, so I learned a lot about tipi construction.” (Adriana Fehrs photo)
The owners contribute their success to their customer service. “We have a lot of one-on-one interaction,” says Larry. Most of their customers come from word-of-mouth and referrals. Jolene says, “we try to be as personable as possible; we really get to know our customers throughout the process.”
Though there is competition in the area, Larry and Jolene say they have a great working relationship with other embroidery and upholstery companies in the area, such as Alpine and Total Screen of Polson.
The Gray Wolf Trading Company is located at 40709 Montana Highway 35 in Polson, across from Eagle Bank. To learn more about the Gray Wolf Trading Company, contact Larry or Jolene at (406) 883-5422. Call them toll free at (888) 461-5289, or email them at email@example.com. Visit their website at www.graywolftradingcompany.com, or find them on Facebook.