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Into leather: Yaak businessman keeps selling out stock

| August 26, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Ted Schmidt has a problem most businessmen would envy. His product is too successful.

The 53-year-old retired military man sews hand-made moccasins, and sells them at mountain man rendezvous gatherings around the West.

"I sell out the first day and then they beat down my door," he said. "I hate to take orders because then it becomes too much like a job."

Even with his low-key approach to marketing, Schmidt has four to six weeks worth of back orders to work on. The moccasins' popularity is partly because they're sturdy and durable, and partly because they are so attractive they border on art.

Schmidt wore a 13-year-old pair while bustling around his workshop Wednesday morning.

He and wife Patty O'Brien live with German short-haired pointers named Shadow and Karma and a blond Lab named Chance on 40 acres along the Yaak River. On Wednesday, with mist rising from the water and sun trying to break through the clouds, the setting was more conducive to sitting on the porch with coffee than it was for work.

But Schmidt was busy, as usual, building a large cedar sailboat. He previously built a canoe, which hangs in the shop near the bigger craft. The current project features 100 strips of inch-wide cedar in the bent-wood hull. He plans a launch party next spring with a friend who's also building a boat.

Schmidt took time out from his morning labor to demonstrate moccasin-making for a visitor. That required a short walk from the wood working shop to a sturdy log house that Schmidt built by himself several years ago. He lived in a teepee for six months while working on the structure, which now houses hundreds of books, two radio controlled model planes hanging from the ceiling, a soft brain-tanned leather shirt and flute bag, and his moccasin materials and equipment.

The shoes are made of English chrome-tanned cowhide. It's expensive, which is why the moccasins start at $120 a pair. The cowhide doesn't shrink or stretch, so they don't change size after getting wet.

"They're fairly water resistant," Schmidt said.

He can turn out a pair in five hours, and produces 60 to 80 pairs a year. He has gone as high as 100 pairs a year in the past, but said that pace isn't comfortable.

Schmidt, who grew up in Nebraska, said he'd always liked the moccasins made by Carl Dyer, an Indiana resident famous for his product. In 1991, Schmidt called Dyer and asked if he would send an unstitched pair of moccasins so he could assemble them and learn about the craft.

Dyer sent the material and some instructions, and Schmidt practiced for a year and a half. Then he stopped in at Dyer's shop during a trip to the East Coast and got more patterns. Without realizing it, he was on his way to becoming the one-man Yaak River Moccasin Co.

Schmidt spent three years as a Marine Corps captain and 20 years in the Navy, retiring as commander. He honed his sewing technique while in the Navy.

"I'd sit on the boat and make moccasins for the guys," he said, referring to a period when he was executive officer on the U.S.S. Roanoke.

He gave up sewing for a few years, but retired in 1998 and found he still had some leather along with the newly acquired free time. So he picked up the needles again.

The results have surpassed any of Schmidt's expectations.

"Everywhere I go, I have no competition," he said of the rendezvous sites. "People aren't making moccasins, other than wall-hangers. There probably aren't 50 people in the country who sew moccasins."

Author and fellow Yaak resident Rick Bass knows Schmidt well, and appreciates his neighbor's unique qualities that go beyond moccasin-making.

"Ted may be one of the most independent people up in the Yaak, and Lincoln County," Bass said. "I like to tease him about his expertise and punctuality, his precision and thoroughness — the latter of which are not always Yaak attributes.

"He is a polished man living comfortably in an at-times rough and ragged landscape. There is no undertaking that Ted begins that he does not complete, and in style. He's one of those people you can delight in asking 'What have you been up to?' knowing that his answer will surprise you."

Although he doesn't want to grow past the cottage industry stage, Schmidt uses profits from moccasin sales to pay for other passions such as boat building. The sailboat currently in progress is named "Moccasin Girl" for that reason.

He calls moccasin sewing a lost art, and says it really can't be taught because so much practice is required that people have to develop on their own. Schmidt has an artist's temperament when it comes to his own work, continually striving to improve on results that other people marvel at.

"Each pair is different," he said. "I've sewed several hundred pairs and I'm still learning."

The last comment sums up Schmidt's approach to all of his creative activities. He doesn't want to limit himself to one or two avenues.

"I get into new interests and accomplish what I want, then I move on and learn something new. To me, that's what life's all about — learning new stuff."