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Thatched-roof huts often conjure images of a lazy oasis, detached from the business world of conferences, cellular phones and hard work.

But for Jack Wiley, tiki huts mean big business.

Wiley, 60, has been constructing the huts for nearly 30 years, and now finds himself busier than ever trying to keep up with the public's newfound interest in the past.

He takes most orders from a 2-year-old shop in the Countryside area of Pinellas County. The model tiki huts are nestled between Rooms To Go and Circuit City on the west side of busy U.S. 19 just north of Sunset Point Road. The open-air tiki hut showroom is part of Victoria's Pottery, an outdoor display of pottery, fountains and planters that Jack and his wife, Victoria, find on their trips to Mexico.

Some tiki huts are simple overhead shelters with surrounding tables stuck into the ground by poles. Others are elaborate structures with bars and enclosures to conceal small refrigerators.

Wiley, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Pinellas County, says he always has been interested in history and in the lives of American Indians. He first began to see thatched roofs 40 years ago while traveling to Thailand, Jamaica and Burma as a civilian in the USO with a professional water-ski group.

Local Seminole Indians used the thatched roof design to make what they called "chickee huts" for centuries, and that same technique is still used by other cultures throughout the world.

"I do it the same way the Indians did it 1,000 years ago," Wiley said. "When the first settlers came to Florida, they learned to make these. The old ideas are still the best, even though they are sometimes more difficult."

He studied the design and began making woven coconut-palm hats before expanding his plans to construct roofs. Now, Wiley sells his tiki huts to individuals and hotels throughout Florida and as far away as Louisiana and South Carolina.

In the past, most of his customers were in the hotel industry, but today, Wiley builds the huts primarily for private homes.

"Twenty years ago people didn't put so much money into their homes," he said. "In the past you would spend more money visiting a hotel than you would on your house. Maybe people now have more money to put into their homes, for swimming pools and tiki huts."

Wiley has found many customers willing to spend $750 for a hut with a roof of 8 feet in diameter and a 40-inch table. A bar with a 12-foot-wide roof, the largest, costs about $2,700 and includes space for a small refrigerator. Twenty-five years ago, Wiley said, that same large thatched roof would have gone for $500.

One of his first corporate clients, Clearwater Beach Hotel, ordered eight tiki huts from Wiley more than 20 years ago. Hotel manager Wallace Lee considers the huts, nestled between the two sea walls, an extra perk for guests.

"They're very popular," Lee said. "When we're busy, they are always filled with people sitting, reading and enjoying the beach surroundings."

Last month, Wiley built a large tiki hut and bar for Kitty and Ed Maier's Palm Harbor home. A cooler temperature inside the huts was the selling point for the couple, who have decorated theirs with tropical flowers and rope lighting.

"It's a real conversation piece," Ed said. "It will be great for entertaining. When I get home, it's the first place I go."

Materials were easier to come by when Wiley began making thatched-roof huts, about 30 years ago. Back then, he found sabal palmetto trees around Oldsmar and Palm Harbor, areas that have since been transformed into housing developments and strip malls.

"You can't just walk across the street and cut down a tree anymore," he said. "Now, I have to drive 100 miles just to get what I need to work with."

He gets the cypress wood to create the stand and frame from local sawmills, but gathering the palm fronds is a much more adventurous job. Several times a month, Wiley and his 22-year-old nephew, Jose Poot, leave their Odessa home at the crack of dawn and travel south to the wilderness surrounding Port Charlotte.

With machetes in hand, they gather fronds from sabal palmetto trees, often encountering deer, wild boar and large snakes. They once took in a family of screech owls they found in a defronded palm tree until the raptors were old enough to make their home in trees in his yard.

"Some people think we're crazy to go into the swamp, looking for materials, when we could get something at the store," Wiley said. "But we're trying to carry on a tradition."

It didn't take Wiley long to master the art of gathering leaves. He said the trick is to cut healthy green leaves from the outside of the palms, which are actually a grass, not a tree. If he cuts from the perimeter of the plant and not the center, new leaves will grow back in about two weeks.

"We go back into the woods and cut the nicest palms we can find," he said. "We get smaller leaves for small huts and larger leaves for the larger orders, so the finished roof will be tight and seal out water."

Smaller huts require about 250 fronds. For larger ones, 1,000 fronds are folded in half and nailed into frames.

It takes Wiley about a day to make a small hut. A 25-foot-wide hut roof with eight sides and 2,000 leaves can take up to a week. Wiley said he sometimes follows blueprints for commercial pieces, but usually follows his internal blueprint, gained from years of experience.

After a frame of cypress wood is nailed together, Wiley installs the folded fronds like shingles, held together with roofing nails. The leaves can last up to seven years before the hut must be rethatched.

From the time he chose tiki hut construction as a business, Wiley's whole livelihood has been dependent largely on the weather. He works seven days a week in clear weather, and has spent many frustrating days recently watching heavy rains instead of filling orders. He builds about three huts a week.

"I just don't know how I get everything done," he said. "We're selling these things like hotcakes."

The couple hope to soon turn their lot on U.S. 19 into a factory of sorts, where they can build huts and ship them to other states. Someday, the couple plan to retire to the Yucatan Peninsula, where Victoria grew up. But for now, Jack plans to continue building huts "as long as I can."

"I like doing this," he said. "I get satisfaction from seeing them built, and I identify with the product. Everybody has their own thing. I have friends in the construction business. And I build these."

For more information, call Victoria's Pottery at 799-9042.

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