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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Stetson led way for modern cowboy hats

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

The unique history of the felt hat goes back to the mid-15th century, more than 400 years ago, during which time it has been both a symbol of status and social necessity.

The mysterious quality of beaver hair with its tiny barbed hooks allows it to be gathered and processed into a feltlike material, then shaped into a form to fit man's head, thus becoming protective in use and stylish in looks.

For untold centuries every civilized man desired his own beaver hat no matter the cost.

The demand for beaver fur helped shape the history of North America. The proceeds from trapped beaver fur financed ocean voyages, expeditions up mountains, across rivers, deserts, founded settlements, built forts and established the trails that opened up the new continent. The fortunes created by fur provided a colorful a period of history like no other in the world. It all ended when the fashionable man decided he preferred a silk hat to the old beaver felt style.

Other competition to the felt hat came from the Spanish explorers moving north from Mexico.

Their hot climate, desert sun and need for shade gave birth to the huge sombreros made by weaving materials from straw and forming them into a hat shape similar to the old standard felt hat.

One type, called the Sugarloaf Sombrero, featured a tall crown, an extra wide brim and fancy stitching for decoration. Famous men like Pancho Villa, Tom Mix and Billy The Kid wore Sugarloaf Sombreros.

The stitched decorative braids on these hats were called galones and the ultimate in design featured 10 rows of braids on the crown. Thus, a hat with dios galones became "10 gallons" giving birth to the famous hat description. The arrival of the automobile spelled the demise of the big hats as they simply would not fit inside.

In about 1860 the "perfect headpiece" was invented by John B. Stetson. He was the son of a Philadelphia hat-making family and suffered from tuberculosis, an occupational disease of hat-makers.

Forced to travel west for his health he was on a Pike's Peak camping expedition when the need for a hat arose.

He clipped hair from several beaver hides and demonstrated his felt-making abilities to his companions by creating a hat to wear.

A cowboy rode by, saw the hat and offered $5 for purchase. The rest of the Stetson history is legend.

C.W. Lyle Jr. of Fort Worth once described his old Stetson in a poem telling of his hat's escapades:

Seems it had been stained with sweat, dirt, blood, whiskey and grease ... was battered, stomped, punched, stretched and swatted ... used as a pillow, a fan, carrying water, horse feed and beans ... fought prairie fire, gave shade, stopped wind, turned rain, blocked snow and hailstones ... once blew away, was stolen at a dance, became security for a bar bill, floated down a flooded creek, was buried beneath a rock slide and chewed on by a goat.

Most real cowboys and Westerners believe that without their hat, they would be just another "nude, rude dude."

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" August 18, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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