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Business Spotlight: Back to the Earth

Forest Garden Yurts offers a mellow space for weddings or respite

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Yurts – traditionally made of wool felt stretched over a domed wooden frame – are Mongolian in origin, but a small enclave of yurts in a forest in Reeds Spring look a little like they were zapped straight down from Mars.

Forest Garden Yurts, owned by Amanda and Nick Francis, are distinctive, to say the least. The largest of their four yurts is visible from Missouri Route 413. It is a round building constructed of wood and stone with a shingled roof, and inside, a rough wood interior includes tables and chairs arranged around a central platform.

This is the event space, a yurt for very particular wedding clients – Amanda says only super-chill couples marry in a yurt, so there are no bridezillas here – and for other gatherings, like a small concert held June 3 as a sort of appetizer for the town’s 16th Annual Rock House Music Festival set for the next day.

Not visible from the roadway are three other yurts, a large one and two smaller ones, constructed of wood and steel. They are arranged together with a covered picnic area in between. The main yurt is a short-term rental offered by the Francises through Airbnb at an average cost of $150 per night.

Of the two smaller yurts, one contains a modern bathroom furnished with a shower, and the other offers storage space that can be pressed into a bedroom for two. The complex occupies 4 acres of woodland, with plenty of surrounding space for tents.

Former studio
The largest yurt, near the highway, once served as a workshop and showroom for Tom Hess, a potter, and Lory Brown, a maker of pine needle baskets. Their products gained national renown, Amanda says.

The Hess Pottery website is still up and running, though Lory has died and Tom has moved out of state. A section on the yurt website says architect and homesteader William S. Coperthwaite led a workshop in spring 1979 to craft the distinctive buildings.

Tom and Lory lived in the yurt that now serves as an Airbnb. It still contains their eclectic furnishings, like Danish kneeling chairs and built-in desks and cabinets. There are carvings by Greene County woodworker Jeff Brundege, whose ornate woodwork and cast-metal items adorn Bass Pro Shops’ stores and other Johnny Morris properties and are prized by collectors.

Amanda says she heard that the property with its unique buildings was available for sale in 2019, and she knew she had to see it. Once she saw it, she knew she had to have it.

“When I was beginning this, I just cried the whole time I was walking through,” she says.

They were tears of joy, she says – of something like homecoming: “I felt like we had just enough knowledge to pull this off.”

Amanda has taught business courses and has a mind for the subject, while Nick is a homebuilder with the know-how to maintain the structures. The pair also have a love for history, and they appreciate how the buildings serve as a monument to the back-to-nature, homesteader mentality that is part of their origin story.

Nick was dubious, Amanda recalls, but she figured they would need to rent the property eight nights a month to pay off her loan.

Bookings on the Airbnb site show she has achieved that target, with June entirely booked and only 10 days still available in July.

Investment plan
The spaces have been available for rent since the end of 2020. Amanda says she promotes the wedding venue only on the business’ website. She doesn’t want to be too niche, she says. “The coolest weddings have gone down here,” she says, noting couples often stay in the furnished yurt after the ceremony, and wedding parties sometimes camp in tents before spending a day floating on one of the nearby rivers.

Recently, someone called Amanda on a Thursday to say she was eloping – “Can we get married there on Sunday?” the person asked. The answer was a resounding yes, and Amanda helped pull it together, finding an officiant and readying the space.

“Anyone’s craziest ideas, we’re accommodating,” she says.

The event space costs $500 to rent for a wedding, plus a $100 cleaning fee.

Rachael West of Eating the Ozarks teaches foraging on the property, and sometimes wild forage dinners are offered. Amanda also works with Heather Duff of Earth Girl Soaps; Duff teaches occasional classes in wild botanicals on the property.

In the future, the site will include some other camping options, like an upscale tent for glamping, a treehouse and what Amanda refers to as a gypsy wagon. The Francises are in the process of adding a bathhouse at an estimated cost of $50,000, and once it’s in place, they will likely raise their prices.

The original property purchase was $150,000, Amanda says. It’s now assessed at over $250,000, Amanda says. In 2020, they invested $10,000 in materials, with another $14,000 in 2021, when they added a septic system. Nick’s skills have saved them the cost of hiring professional crafters, they say, declining to disclose annual revenues.

Things are going well, Amanda says, and a Springfield restaurant has approached her about a partnership, though she is not ready to announce it just yet.

“We’d been running at break-even, but we’re killing it this year,” she says. “Guests love it. They thank us for sharing this property with the world.”

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