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All Hat: Cowboy Hats Brim with Style

Written by Gene Fowler.

At Ben's Western Wear in Cotulla, longtime employee Carlos Gonzales shapes a hat for his cousin Gilbert. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

When it comes to goin’ cowboy—whether fauxpoke or genuine article—much of the mystique is all about the hat.

President Lyndon Johnson ordered hundreds of Resistol “San Antone” or “Open Road” hats as “friendship gifts” for visitors to his ranch in the 1960s. When he presented West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his traveling party with 50 hats, Life magazine proclaimed that the Johnson presidency had stampeded the nation into “The 10-Gallon Era.”

The Resistol and Stetson felt and straw cowboy hats sold in Western-wear stores today are manufactured in Garland, where the Resistol/Stetson company operates an outlet store. And custom hatters throughout the state can make you a hat like one that catches your fancy in a movie, book, or magazine. Or even in your imagination.

"Those hats tell the story of my life and of this whole part of the country." - Nat Fleming

As a living folk tradition, hatmaking is often passed down through generations. Don Livingston, for example, learned from a female hatter named Tex Gregory, who ran Lone Star Hatters in Austin. And Joe Peters of Peters Bros. Hats in Fort Worth studied chapeau mojo with his grandfather Tom Peters, who started the business with his brother Jim in 1911.

To celebrate Peters Bros.’ centennial in 2011, Peters plans to make 100 hats of 100% beaver and discount them $100. They might be fedoras or the special “Shady Oak” style that Grandpa Peters used to make for Fort Worth civic booster Amon Carter, who presented “Shady Oaks” to important Cowtown visitors. The style has stood the test of time: Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and other winners at last year’s Lone Star International Film Festival, held in Fort Worth, received “Shady Oak” hats instead of trophies.

Before he became the head hatmaker in the mid-1990s at the 100-year-old Standard Hat Works in Waco, Lenny Lawson absorbed hat know-how by visiting hatters across the country and hanging out at the shop in Waco. “Rodeo cowboys like to come in here to drink coffee and shoot the breeze,” says Lawson. “After an injury ended my bull-riding days, I just started helping folks with hats, and when I was selling as many as the people who worked here, they hired me.”

Stewart Martin, the late owner of Ben’s Western Wear in Cotulla, wrote that many a South Texas brush country cowboy heard these discouraging words from a spouse: “You’re not coming back into this house with that dirty, stinking, old hat!” For wranglers reluctant to part with their soulful sombreros, Martin created the store’s Texas Hat Museum. When a cowboy bought a new hat, he left the old one, which went up on the wall. Today, more than 400 sweat-and-soil-stained hats grace the antique Cotulla bricks at Ben’s, in a building that used to be an Old West saloon.

No one understands that sentiment better than Nat Fleming, who maintained the same tradition at The Cow Lot Western Wear Store in Wichita Falls, which opened in 1952. By 2007, when The Cow Lot closed, 511 “Nat’s Hats” had assumed a place of honor on the walls and in the rafters. Fleming donated his collection to the city’s Museum of North Texas History, which will soon display them in a renovated wing of the building.

“Those hats tell the story of my life and of this whole part of the country,” says Fleming.

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From the February 2009 issue.

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