The Billings Outpost

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Once-dominant Stetson goes way of Wild West

Whatever happened to Western hats? Not long ago they were everywhere. This country was so crowded with them that cowboys had to roll up the brims in order to ride three in a pickup.

Who drove John B. Stetson from the West? Dame fashion, that harlot sweetheart of the masses.

John Stetson, son of a hat maker, discovered the need for a revolution in hattery when he traveled West for his health. He opened his first factory in 1865. Stetson became the biggest hat maker in the world, turning out 31 million annually before the company turned toes up more than a century later. Today, a greatly reduced number of Stetsons are manufactured by companies that have licensed the trademark.

Suddenly, demand for the hat that shaded the West plunged. In the wink of an eye, cheap caps replaced expensive triple-X and quadruple-X beaver hats.

One-size-fits-all baseball caps slapped on backwards with the brim shading the wearer’s neck began as “gimmies,” given away free by seed and feed stores, implement dealers and, in this neck of the woods, “Kings Ropes” of Sheridan. The giveaway fad spread through all major league teams and a slew of half-wit slogans.

Prisoners at Montana State Prison once braided horse hair into hat bands. They earned pennies and were glad to get ’em. The death of the bronc rider’s headgear robbed these craftsmen of their hobby and only source of income.

Last week I was standing outside the Crowne Plaza when someone beached a long, white Cadillac sedan at the curb. The man climbing out of the driver’s side wore a pearl white suit and a matching hat as big as Garfield County.

The hat was, in fact, more impressive than the Cadillac. It was a heroic sized version of Stetson’s original “Boss of the Plains” model. I would have paid all the money between me and payday for one like it, but I knew my best effort couldn’t touch it.

The man removed the “Boss” from his head and held it in one hand, as if he were about to stampede a herd of Mexican billies. His white hair signaled maturity and went well with the hat, suit and sedan. No one would call this guy “all hat and no cattle.” Nor would his hat head south while he marched north.

The man made a half circle with his hat hanging at half mast, flushing pedestrians from the sidewalk. He stopped facing my direction, seemingly in a hurry. Some folk can appear that way while standing still.

He caught me looking at him and asked if I could direct him to a pay phone.

“Hmmm,” I mumbled. “This old duck still ain’t got the news.”

For some reason I felt responsible for his plight – being out of communication with a case of the frets. I was about to tell him pay phones had gone the way of the “Boss of the Plains” when a teenage girl passed.

“Hey!” I barked in a remnant of what was once a teacher’s voice. The girl froze. “Lend this guy your phone,” I commanded.

The intrusion embarrassed both the girl and the old dandy. She fished the instrument from her pocket and passed it to the white-haired fellow. He seated the “Boss of the Plains” between his ears and handled the phone like a bomb squad expert disarming an IED.

In seconds he made his call and returned the girl’s widget. She dropped the phone into a jeans pocket and left without waiting for thanks.


My eyes swept the intersection, capturing a half-dozen women coming and going. All wore jeans or slacks, either sporty or dressy.

Whatever happened to skirts and dresses?


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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