THERMOPOLIS — Merlin might not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of mountain men.
But it’s the perfect name for someone who not only can look a lot like a mountain man when he wants to, but can take buffalo hides and transform them into one-of-a-kind coats, pillows, hats, and mittens, which are in demand around the world.
Merlin Heinz lives in Thermopolis, where, as a young boy, he learned the amazing tricks of transformation at a magic little “school” otherwise known as 4H.
Those early experiences in 4H not only taught Merlin how to make a lot of things, but it gave him the confidence later in life to make with his own two hands almost anything he could envision.
“I’m a ranch hand by trade,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “When I had to go to work for a living, I had a lot of time in the evenings because I didn’t go to town much. So, you know, you have to entertain yourself.”
Making things passed the time in the evening, and he always had something cool to show for the time he invested. That was all well and good, but then one day Merlin needed a new pair of beaver fur gaiters.
At first, he was just going to buy them. But, when he checked the prices, they were a bit steep for his taste. Even just plain hides that he could sew himself into whatever he wanted were way too expensive.
He remembered making a pair of gaiters during his 4H years and realized he needn’t pay an exorbitant sum for what he wanted. He could just make them himself.
“So, he decided he would drop the beaver himself, tan the hide himself, and make the gaiters himself,” his wife Barb Heinze recalled.
Merlin took over a spare bedroom for a space to work in, tarping it to protect everything. While Barb thought it was a great, one-time project that would be over soon, she was quite wrong.
Once the new gaiters were made, Merlin came up with other projects to make in the spare bedroom.
“The bedroom never got untarped,” she said. “He kept going to get small animals. He tanned fox. He tanned coyotes. And then he would make stuff from them.”
A year later, a friend asked Merlin to tan what would be the first of many bison hides.
“I’d love to try,” Merlin told him.
“Not in the spare bedroom,” Barb said, determined to reclaim it for guests.
Merlin’s Hide Out Is Born
That led Merlin to set up his own workshop outside. At first it was just a lean-to, but working on buffalo hides in the prime months got awfully cold in Wyoming. January and February are when hides will be at their thickest.
So, the couple built a 10 x 15-foot log shed for Merlin to use instead.
“After that, Merlin was never to be found,” Barb told Cowboy State Daily. “He was always in the log shed. So, for his birthday, as a joke, I made a sign for the front door. It said 'Merlin’s Hide Out.”
To this day, that sign is still hanging on that log shed, but it’s also now the name of their retail shop in Thermopolis on Fifth Street.
While its beginnings were humble, tanning a few hides for friends and making a few things here and there, Merlin’s Hide Out has since served many celebrities and has customers from around the world.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has purchased two of Merlin’s buffalo coats, Merlin told Cowboy State Daily, and Tim McGraw wears one on the “Yellowstone” prequel, “1883.”
Merlin never imagined what he learned in 4-H about making things, as well as his hobby of tanning hides, would one day lead to a shop in Thermopolis that outfits movie and television celebrities.
“I just built stuff for myself, and then everybody else wanted the same thing,” he said. “So, we started building for other people.”
'The Hateful Eight' Coats Are Special
Perhaps the most challenging movie project the couple worked on was their very first one for the movie, “The Hateful Eight.”
It resulted from a blind phone call from a woman seeking something really odd. A “summer” buffalo hide.
“Nobody wants a summer buffalo hide, because they’re slicked out like a horse,” Barb said. “I mean, they have no hair.”
Barb told her politely that Merlin’s shop only has prime winter hides for sale.
“We talked back and forth for a long time, and I finally said, ‘You know if you tell me what you’re using it for, I could probably better help you,’” Barb said. “That’s when she told me that her name was Courtney Hoffman and that she was the costume designer for a Quentin Tarantino movie called ‘The Hateful Eight,’ and they wanted the hide to make a buffalo coat.”
It would take more than one hide to make a buffalo coat, of course, and no one would make them out of summer hides. Barb decided to let the woman know Merlin had been making buffalo coats for years.
That led Hoffman to send a photograph of the coat she wanted, to see if Merlin’s Hide Out could make one just like it.
Once Barb had the picture in hand, she finally understood where all the confusion was coming from.
“It was a picture of a coat that was in the Gene Autry Museum in the archives,” Barb said. “The reason she thought it was a summer hide was because it had been worn for years. The fur was worn down and that’s why it was so short.”
With that information in hand, Barb and Merlin were able to make a similar coat by shearing off the fur to make it shorter. The movie then had people who could age the coat further to give it exactly the right look.
We’ll Take Eight More, Please
That first coat had been perfect, but now Hoffman had a new problem more challenging than the last. Hoffman wanted at least four more coats exactly like the first.
“You need what?” Barb recalled saying, shocked.
“We need duplicates,” Hoffman replied.
That was a much more challenging problem than Hoffman realized.
“No two bison hides look alike,” Barb told her. “I can match two for a coat, but to match eight more hides to make four more coats that look exactly like the one you have, I can’t do it. I can’t do an exact match. I can get close.”
Close would have to be good enough, Hoffman decided.
As Barb undertook the monumental task of sorting through buffalo hide after buffalo hide to find ones that would be a good match, coat orders for the Hateful Eight began to tick upward.
From four coats, the order went to six, then eight, and finally 10. That would be 20 buffalo hides that all matched.
“I had looked at over 450 bison hides to get enough for the 10 coats that would match the first,” Barb said. “And I didn’t, they were just OK. I wasn’t thrilled.”
When an assistant of Hoffman’s called to say that the last two coats were being cancelled, Barb was not the least bit upset. She was relieved.
Outfitting The A List
After those first coats, celebrity and movie orders have continued to roll in.
Some are under nondisclosure agreements, but among those she can mention are hats for Jorge Garcia in the Ridiculous Six and pelts for the Magnificent Seven.
In 2016, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Barb recalls getting the call from an assistant saying that Schwarzenegger wanted a coat.
“We were here working in the store,” she said. “It was a blizzard outside and it was like a quarter to six at night.”
Eventually, that call was followed up by one from Schwarzenegger himself, saying that he was in Sun Valley, Idaho on his way home to California and planning to stop by.
Barb offered to get him up from the airport, but that is when she learned one cannot just go pick up a celebrity any old where.
“He couldn’t fly into our airport. It was new enough that it hadn’t passed security,” Barb said.
Schwarzenegger instead landed in Worland, and a driver from Jackson came to pick him up and take him to Thermopolis.
Schwarzenegger was a “super nice guy,” Barb said.
“We went up and fed a baby bison that was orphaned, and the rest of his family had gone to a cafe for lunch,” she said.
At noon, Barb took him to the cafe to meet up with his family.
“He walks in, and you know he’s kind of recognizable,” Barb said. “We left and he had a piece of pie, paid the bill, and then, literally all hell broke loose.”
By that, Barb means her phone was ringing off the hook with media from across the Cowboy State asking her about Schwarzenegger’s visit.
“It was crazy, it was insane,” she said.
Barb, however, took it all in stride.
“I learned from a boss I had for many, many years,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, they put their pants on one leg at a time and that’s how I treat everybody.”
For Merlin’s part, though, he still has one favorite item that he makes from buffalo hides.
“I like the gaiters,” he said with a smile.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.