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Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 14, 2017

Tracks and Tales: Home building 1800s style

By Pam Holz

It looks kind of like a cross between Cousin It and something from Where the Wild Things Are.  A set of large glow-in-the-dark eyes and some fangs would fit nicely on the back side, the side facing the campground.    
I am referring to our new wickiup at Marr Park.  
A what? you may be asking.  A wickiup is a type of Native American shelter that would have been used in this area historically.  
While many people think about teepees, those structures would have been used more by tribes farther west and more nomadic than the ones in eastern Iowa.  The Native Americans here would have hunted buffalo, but with less and smaller herds, not to the extent of those in the West.  In addition, tribes here would have also remained in temporary villages to farm.  A more permanent structure, unlike the mobile teepee, would be called for.  
So what exactly is a wickiup?  Essentially, it is a round, domed building made of local materials such as trees, bark, grasses, hides, etc.  A wigwam would be similar, but that term usually refers to structures Back East.  
Our wickiup was built recently over one weekend by Boy Scouts as an Eagle Scout project for Eli Carrier.  Eli quickly proved to the staff that he had become something of a wickiup expert while planning the ultimate venture of his youth Scouting career.  His directions to his helpers were peppered with phrases such as “wickiup plans from the 1800s showed…” or “images of wickiups in the 1800s had…”  He could explain the design and why the design worked as well as other ways wickiups could be built.  The end result is as much his leadership and knowledge, if not more, as it is the excellent help of the Scouts and leaders who came out that day.  
On that particular Friday, staff cleared out the area for the wickiup (next to the playscape, at the south end of the pine trail).  The Scouts spent a greater part of the afternoon and evening cutting prairie grass and tying them in bundles for the covering.  
On Saturday, perhaps 20 Scouts and other helpers rotated throughout the nine hours on the project.  
The day began with laying out the size and exact location.  One Scout dug a dozen 1-foot holes in a circle for the tall willow tree frame.  The flexible willows were pulled down in the center and lashed together, forming a high dome.  Smaller willows were attached horizontally, encircling the vertical frame.  This provided both structural support as well as a framework for the covering.  
Three sturdy box elder trees were placed, teepee-style, in the center and attached to the frame.  Without this addition, the dome would more likely lean to and fro with snow, rain, and wind.  These trees keep the structure stable and strong.  You can see their tips peeking out, like horns, from the top of the wickiup.  
Next, we stepped a bit out of traditional materials and construction and wrapped the structure in tarps.  We hope this way the framework lasts longer through the seasons (a good wickiup can last five years) and maybe even be enjoyable during rain.  Grass mats came next on the outside and took the longest.  Roughly 15 tied bundles were laid in a row and then weaved together at the top to form a mat.  These mats were then laid on the wickiup frame, from bottom to top (to shed water outside the structure and not in) and tied on.  
Finally we added some extra grass to the floor, cleaned up the site, and, of course, posed for pictures.  
During my last day camp, I enjoyed watching the campers run in and out of the wickiup.  I will also be certainly using the site for other educational programs; it’d be a great storytelling spot.  
Like with the rest of the surrounding playscape area (i.e., nature playground), the wickiup is open to the public as well.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.