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Kirkham’s genius gave us comfort

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Whoever said you can't make everyone happy never met Jack Kirkham. Or at least never slept in one of his tents.

His was a product for the masses. Even today, outdoor experts love his Springbar for its toughness, breathability and simplicity. Novices like it because it feels almost like home.

My wife loves it because she can put a queen-size air mattress, portable nightstand, makeup mirror and possibly a jetted tub inside one of the six-person tents.

Just like home, minus the china hutch and microwave.

Ah, the great outdoors.

Especially when it's almost like indoors.

Kirkham, the inventor of the Springbar, died at 89 last month, leaving a lasting legacy. How lasting? Think of it this way: Some people believe their lives depended on his tents. Expeditions to Mount Everest have featured them at base camps 21,000 feet above sea level. They're popular with campers from the mountains to the deserts to the sea because they're rugged, waterproof and easy to assemble.

Testimonials even include an out-of-work family that lived in a Springbar for a year and a half.

It wasn't luxurious, and the walls were a little thin, but it kept out the weather.

Heaven knows how many church and Scout groups have featured his tents.

Now that's versatility, a product for the great and small.

It's not easy to please those who virtually live outdoors, and at the same time satisfy those who think mowing the lawn is high adventure. But Kirkham struck a balance between hard-core enthusiasts and drive-up-the-canyon families.

"I think that's very true, because hunters and outfitters — people who demand the best — are our customers. On the other hand, people who haven't gone camping before have had a good experience, too," said Jack Kirkham Jr., son of the inventor.

The story of how the elder Kirkham got started begins more than half a century ago. The Lehi native got a job working for an awning business before becoming a shipyard draftsman during World War II. Upon returning to Utah, he bought AAA Tent and Awning. Later he established Kirkham's Outdoor Products.

Though not an avid camper, he noticed most tents were unwieldy. They involved, as his son puts it, "lots of ropes and poles, no simplicity at all."

Likewise, they used low-grade canvas and were stuffy, heavy and smelled bad.

Kirkham started experimenting with tightly woven cotton duck fabric, which was by nature water repellent and breathable.

He wanted simplicity and something families could use.

Imagine that — tents that were livable.

Kirkham eventually developed a tent that, once you got the hang of it, was a 10-minute project. All you needed was to remember to start with the center bar along the top. After that, things just snapped together.

In moments, you were opening the screen to let in the breeze.

News of the elder Kirkham's passing was carried in newspapers in Utah, Washington and Oregon. Their readers may not have known him, but they knew and appreciated his work. He held several patents, including the "modular" tent that had separate rooms.

That, too, was a stroke of genius.

Now customers could keep squirmy kids or snoring Uncle Lyle on one side, and themselves on the other.

The Utah National Parks Council has purchased many of Kirkham's tents; so have adventure groups. One outfitter regularly took groups to Micronesia and housed them in Springbars. Scout jamborees use them by the hundreds.

Kirkham's tents have become an outdoor home of the masses.

"I don't know all the locations off the top of my head, but over the years they've been all over the world," said Jack Kirkham Jr.

Which is sort of ironic.

Although his tents have been everywhere under the sun, all Arthur Jack Kirkham really intended was to bring camping a little closer to home.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com