When the stars of country music converge Sunday on AT&T Stadium in Arlington, many will step from their limos wearing the Stetson, that iconic hat of the American West.
But amid the glitz of the Academy of Country Music Awards, few are likely to know that the Stetson is actually crafted just a short drive away, in the Dallas suburb of Garland. Or that it was exactly 150 years ago that John B. Stetson changed the West.
Ricky Bolin is a former professional bull rider and now the general manager of Garland’s Hatco Inc. — the manufacturer and distributor of both the Stetson and its famous sibling, the Resistol. Bolin is more than happy to educate the glittering crowd.
“I’ve been deeply involved in this for 26 years, and Stetson has always been that brand name throughout the world,” Bolin says. “It’s been such an honor to be a part of this. Everyone knows what a Stetson is. It’s like Coke.”
Consider that before the 1860s, there were cattle and cowboys in the American West, but no cowboy hats per se.
Settlers arrived in derbies and boaters, top hats or sailor caps, none of them a match for the prairie sun, wind, heat and snow. Headwear of the time also left something to be desired in the romance department. Imagine John Wayne in True Grit sporting a boater. Or George Strait.
Enter Mr. Stetson, son of a successful New Jersey hatter, who in the early 1860s struck out for Colorado, hoping a change of scenery would benefit his failing health. Finding gold wouldn’t hurt either. He found wet and cold instead, and a much different kind of opportunity.
In his father’s shop, Stetson had learned of the miraculous properties of rabbit fur. By adding heat, water and pressure, handfuls of the fuzzy stuff would congeal into a sturdy, waterproof fabric. There was no shortage of rabbits in Colorado, and Stetson’s party soon huddled beneath rabbit blankets.
Then he took it a step further. If the fur made a good blanket, he thought, perhaps it might make a better hat. Stetson’s first creation had a high crown that trapped heat, and a flat, wide brim that shielded against sun and rain like no other. An envious mule driver offered Stetson $5 for the world’s first cowboy hat. Five bucks was big money then.
Thus inspired, Stetson returned east to Philadelphia, hired two workers and began to crank out the hat that became known as the Boss of the Plains. The year was 1865. Subsequent generations of cowboys molded the crowns and brims to their particular tastes, a tradition that continues.
The world has certainly changed. America moved from ranches and farms to the cities, where a cowboy hat was no longer a practical necessity.
Stetson workers once toiled around the clock to meet demand for their famous product. Garland now runs one shift, producing 3,000 hats a day or more than 700,000 a year — a figure that’s down from more than 3 million a year at its peak.
In the turbulent 1960s, America largely turned away from the cowboy hat, but its resurgence can be attributed to factors ranging from movies like Urban Cowboy, Stetson wearers such as President Ronald Reagan and the popular appeal of Stetson brims among country music artists.
And among cowboys at the Fort Worth Stockyards, surveyed on a recent morning, the Stetson remains the gold standard.
Cliff “The Breeze” Fowler is a member of the Cowboy Fast Draw Association and definitely looks the part — drooping handlebar mustache, blue bandana knotted around his neck, white felt 20-year-old Stetson on his head.
“Fits good,” he says, between gun-fighting shows at the Stockyards. “That’s real important when the wind comes up. You don’t want it blowing away. It’s lightweight and durable. It’s held up for a long time. I’ve cleaned it pretty often, three times in 20 years.”
He also has a Stetson from the 1940s that belonged to his uncle. It is preserved in a box at home and will be a gift to his daughter someday.
“For the old-time cowboys, it was more than a hat — it was a tool,” Fowler says. “You used it to fan the flames of your campfire. You could use it to get you and your horse a drink. You’d fill your hat with water, take a drink, then give a drink to your horse. Not the other way around.”
The hat makes the man
Bolin came by his career in cowboy hats honestly, riding bulls professionally from 1975 through 1989. Four times he qualified for the National Finals Rodeo and twice he was the bull-riding champion at the Stock Show and Rodeo in Fort Worth. Then, in 1989, a good friend, Lane Frost, was killed by a bull.
“I realized it could happen to me,” Bolin says. “I always got hurt but I never thought about getting killed. I had two daughters. I was 30 years old. I realized the dangers.”
As a rodeo cowboy, he always bought his Resistols at the Garland outlet store, “because that’s all that I could afford,” Bolin says. That’s also where he landed after his riding days were over, selling hats. A quarter-century later, he was promoted to the top job.
On a recent morning in his office he wore blue jeans, a Western shirt and a straw Resistol. Stetson now has a line of apparel and fragrances, among other things, but Bolin’s heart is clearly with the hat. He says he never leaves the house without putting it on.
“It’s part of my identity,” he says. “I would never sit in a meeting and not wear a hat. I wouldn’t have the attitude that I would need.”
On the other hand, Duane Prentice, Hatco’s chief financial officer, usually goes bareheaded. Prentice is an MBA from Illinois, a newcomer to the company who makes a point of wearing a hat on Fridays.
Together they try to negotiate a competitive business environment, looking to improve quality and expand product lines. Finished fedoras and other dress hats take up much of the Garland factory floor.
But in some ways, not much has changed in 150 years. The cowboy hat is king, and when it comes to felt hats, it’s all about the miracle of fur.
While other hat makers use wool, a much less durable material, or a mixture of fur and wool, Stetson and Resistol felt hats are strictly fur. Generally it’s a mix of rabbit and beaver, which is even more water-resistant.
The beaver fur comes from Canada. The rabbit fur is bought in Europe, where the animal is a more common meat source.
“So the fur is a byproduct,” Prentice said.
Feeling the felting
John Stetson might not recognize the process today, but the principle is the same. The fur arrives in bales to a factory in the East Texas city of Longview, where the “felting” process begins.
“That’s why they’re called felt hats,” Prentice says. “Felt is a verb.”
A conveyor deposits fur for each hat into a glassed-wall chamber. A vacuum sucks the fur against a 3-foot-tall, bullet-shaped cone, which is immediately submerged in water. The moisture initiates the felting process, when the fur fibers begin to interlock as they did for John Stetson’s first hat in Colorado.
The sheet of felt is still delicate when peeled from the cone and subjected to progressively more intense treatments of heat, water and pressure. By the time the felting process is done, the sheet has shrunk to hat size, and is as tough as leather. It is machined into a rough hat shape and sent to Garland for finishing.
There, brims are pressed flat, sanded and lacquered for stiffness, then molded for style. It’s the same for the crowns. Sweat bands and hatbands are stitched in by hand. Each hat is individually inspected before being boxed for sale to a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or rodeo cowboy, or rancher, or Texas Ranger, or cowboy wannabe on a honky-tonk Saturday night.
“Seventy percent wear the hats for protection and for the lifestyle,” Bolin says. “The other 30 percent wear them for a fashion statement. We market the Resistol toward the rodeo cowboy. On the Stetson side, we market toward the cattlemen and the rancher, guys who are going to have a cowboy hat on while they’re working outdoors.
“The 30 percent are people who go watch rodeo or go down to the dance hall.”
Or people who make award-winning country music. On Sunday night, they may not know it, but stars wearing Stetson will help a Texas company celebrate 150 years.
Country Music Week!
Monday: Movies for fans of C&W tunes
Tuesday: Country power couples’ lasting love
Wednesday: Recipes from Trisha Yearwood’s latest cookbook
Thursday: DFW’s place in country music
Friday: Your guide to the ACM Awards in Arlington
Saturday: Deciphering the “denim and diamonds” dress code
Sunday: Celebrating the Stetson’s 150th anniversary
50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards
Live broadcast from AT&T Stadium, Arlington
▪ 7 p.m. Sunday
▪ KTVT/Channel 11
▪ For information on tickets and events, visit www.acmcountry.com.