Next generations at Peters Bros. Hats determined to keep family legacy alive

01/16/2014 2:52 PM

01/17/2014 7:34 AM

In a world of change, some things don’t — even when they do.

At Peters Bros. Hats, the fourth and fifth generations of hatters in Fort Worth are making them just the way Jim and Tom Peters did starting in 1921: customized to taste, shaped by hand and built to last through decades of rain, sweat and sun.

And just as it has since 1933, Peters Bros. Hats will have a booth at the Fort Worth Stock Show, which begins Friday and runs through Feb. 8 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, making the company the oldest continuous exhibitor.

But there’s a big adjustment for the small enterprise as it starts its “second Christmas rush.”

In November, Joe Peters Sr., who had been a fixture in the hat shop started by his grandfather, died at 68, leaving his son, Joe Peters Jr., 45, and his grandson, Bradley Peters, 23, to carry on the family legacy in a business that has made hats for everyone from working cowboys to presidents and rock stars.

“Our family poured their hearts into this business, and we’re going to keep it going,” Joe Peters Jr. said.

The names and the times may have changed, but very little has been altered when it comes to crafting custom hats, he said.

“We use the same equipment our grandfathers used. You can’t buy that stuff anymore,” Joe Peters Jr. said. “It’s kind of a lost art. It’s a lot of work to make a good hat. It’s all handmade.”

Greek immigrants Jim and Tom Peters started the business in 1911, beginning with a shoeshine operation in Waco before moving to Fort Worth. The brothers also started a hat renovation department, and in 1921, Tom Peters learned the hat trade while working for John B. Stetson in Philadelphia.

He returned to Fort Worth and started making hats. Jim Peters died in 1933, the same year the business moved to its present location. The shoeshine trade ended in 1973, but Tom Peters continued to craft made-to-order hats until he was 98. He died at 100 in 1991, Joe Peters Jr. said.

‘A dying art’

That’s a heritage unlike any other in Cowtown, said Rodger Chieffalo, a Fort Worth commercial real estate developer who has become a sort of Pied Piper of Peters Bros. Hats.

“Peters Bros. is one of the most legendary retailers west of the Mississippi, right here in little ol’ Fort Worth,” said Chieffalo, who discovered the business through his interest in regional retailing.

Chieffalo bought several hats from Joe Peters Sr., and during his travels, he started ferreting out vintage 1940s and 1950s Peters Bros. cowboy hats in West Texas antique stores.

He brings them back home to Peters Bros. Hats’ creaky and cluttered building at 909 Houston St. in downtown Fort Worth, where they are painstakingly restored.

The rejuvenated hats are then given to relatives, friends and clients. Hats 68, 69 and 70 are in the process of being cleaned, blocked and fitted with new liners and headbands. The hunt is already on for three more.

“My clients love them. It’s astounding the work they do when they restore a hat,” Chieffalo said.

“There’s not many people in the U.S. who can do this. I’ve spent about $10,000 restoring hats,” he said. “I feel like I’m contributing to a dying art. I put my money where my mouth is.”

Rodney Kase Tyrone, a remodeling contractor in Arlington, is doing likewise. He has 24 Peters Bros. dress fedoras boxed in his closet.

As a child, Tyrone, 55, used to ride a bus by the retro-cool Peters Bros. Hats sign on the front of the building. And when he became a church deacon and took an interest in clothing, he ventured into the shop.

“When you are building a wardrobe, you need the right hat. I was impressed with the ambience of the place with high ceilings and wood floors. Man, I get goose bumps every time I go down there,” Tyrone said.

“Mr. Peters really schooled me on hats. It has been a really enduring experience for me,” he said.

Another hat aficionado, Willie Dedmon, 59, of Fort Worth, has bought 17 Peters Bros. fedoras over the last 28 years.

“The quality keeps me coming back. They are the best around. There’s only a couple of places like that in the whole country,” said Dedmon, who works at General Motors.

“Joe Jr., when it comes to making hats, he’s a wizard,” said Dedmon, who carries Peters Bros. business cards to hand out when someone asks about his hat.

‘It’s in the blood’

With the death of his grandfather, much of the weight of carrying on the family tradition is landing on young Bradley Peters, who says he’s in it for the long haul.

He’s been hanging around the shop since he was a child, and at 19, he started working the Stock Show and has worked full time in the shop for the last year.

“It’s in the blood,” said Bradley Peters, who acknowledges he’s still adjusting to his grandfather’s absence. “The challenge isn’t selling hats. It’s producing everything. On a good day, we can do two or three hats if we are lucky.”

Joe Peters Jr. worked alongside his father and great-grandfather. Then, in 2004, he joined M.L. Leddy’s, another longtime Western-wear retailer, where he is still working.

“I work for Leddy’s, but I just so happen to own another business. They have been very understanding of my situation. Brad and I are blessed to have the people we have working here,” Peters said.

Employees Shane Horton and Karen Koon do much of the meticulous handwork in producing felt cowboy hats and fedoras.

“You have to have a lot of patience,” said Horton, who on a recent day was carefully pouncing, or sanding, a felt fedora dubbed the “Indy” after Indiana Jones of film fame.

Custom cowboy hats start at $275 and go all the way up to $800 for all-beaver models. Fedoras, made with a lighter felt, start at $225, Bradley Peters said.

The real “trick” of the hat trade is the quality of the felt, which is made from compressed rabbit and beaver fur, said Joe Peters Jr, who won’t divulge his source.

“The more beaver, the better it holds up to rain and the longer it will last. It’s denser,” he said. “A mix might last for three or four years. An all-beaver hat will last a lifetime.”

The company makes straw hats, too, but felt models are the bulk of the business.

Lucky customers might find a fit among the company’s small inventory of hats. But most will have to wait 12 to 16 weeks for a hat tailored to their taste and fit. And that time might stretch after the Stock Show rush.

“You can’t rush quality,” Joe Peters Jr. said.

Fort Worth culture

Former Star-Telegram Publisher Amon Carter Sr. came up with a Peters Bros. design known as the “Shady Oak,” sort of a cross between a Western style and a businessman’s fedora.

He bestowed them on dignitaries and celebrities who visited his ranch of the same name.

Since 1923, the hats have been given to nine presidents, ending with President Bill Clinton, Joe Peters Jr. said.

“We’re known for cowboy hats and fedoras, but we’ll make any kind of hat. We’ve made hats based on photos of someone’s grandfather. If they want it, we’ll make it,” he said.

Tyrone can attest to that. He was in the store when Texas rocker Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top pulled up in a limousine with an unusual request.

“He wanted a hat like Festus wears on Gunsmoke. Mr. Peters said, ‘Sure,’ ” Tyrone said.

That’s the sort of retailing mindset that Chieffalo wants to keep alive.

“Peters Bros. is a part of Fort Worth culture we should not let go away,” he said. “They are an amazing story that everyone in Fort Worth should know.”

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