It Had to Be a 'Good Un'
By Patrick Bousquet, 1992
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In the annals of our Western History, there are such magical names as Colt, Winchester, William F. Cody, and Wells Fargo.
There is another name, though, that has just as much magic: John B. Stetson. Or, as it has been known, the "John B." The cowboy was usually dressed in two fine items: a pair of fine boots and a Stetson hat.
Fred Gipson, in his book, Fabulous Empire, had these words to say, "Then out into the ring rode Bill Pickett on his little bulldogging horse Spraddly. Bill's show garb wasn't much, compared to the fancy rigs sported by the Mexican bullfighters. Bill had on a good pair of bench-made boots. All cowhands wore good boots. And he had a good white Stetson hat. In the cow Country he'd come from, that's all a cowhand needed to be considered dressed up -- good boots and a Five-X Beaver Stetson. What he wore in between didn't much matter."
In l965, I had been doing some research on John B. Stetson. I found out that G. Henry Stetson, remaining living son of John B. Stetson, lived close by. A few days later, I called at his home taking a chance that he might agree to an interview. His housekeeper took my name and my reason for calling on Mr. Stetson. G. Henry agreed to see me but could not spend much time with me this particuler day. We set a time for the next week; this was the start of several visits.
As I was leaving, G. Henry said, "Where the hell is your hat?" I was afraid this might happen; I owned two Stetson's but just hadn't worn one this day I explained. "Sure, sure," he said. He reached into the closet and took down a western hat and put it on my head. "Don't come back here without a hat!" The next time I saw G. Henry, I wore one of my Stetson hats. The hat that Mr. Stetson gave me was one of his personal hats with his name embossed inside.
John B. Stetson was born in 1830, the youngest of twelve children born to Stephen Stetson, master hatmaker. He lived in Orange, New Jersey. Like his older brothers, John B. was trained in his father's trade. Because John B. was learning a trade, his father saw no need for formal education. So John became a self-made, self-educated man. His mother taught him to read and write.
Stephen Stetson emassed fifty thousand dollars which in his day made him a wealthy man. He decided to retire from being a hatter and invested his fortune in an area unfamilier to him. He lost everything. Discouraged and broke, Stephen died. His son's gathered up the remains of the business and tried to rebuild it.
John B. was working for his older brother. He made hats, purchased raw materials, instructed hatmaking, and marketed the product only to see his brother garner the honors and the profits.
Then came a shocker to John B.'s life. A doctor gave him a short time to live. He had consumption.
After examining his own case, young Stetson decided not to die a young man. Instead he would head for the wide open spaces and try to regain his health. He saw no reason to throw away a life the good Lord had seen fit to give. In the late 1850s, he headed for those wide open spaces, which at this time began in Missouri. In St. Joseph, he joined a party heading for Pikes Peak.
It was a long journey and most of the way he traveled on foot. Trail hardships were many, and sleeping in the open there were all types of weather to face. Oftimes, crude shelters were made from animal skins which had to be discarded when hit by the searing sun. But through all this, John B.'s frail body began to gain strength and vigor.
One particular day, the party had quite a difference of opinion over the fact that cloth could be made without weaving. John B. said he could prove it could be done. Thus, he demonstrated the art of felting. He shaved the fur off some skins and sliced a thong from one skin to make a hunter's bow. He then agitated the fur, making a small cloud of it in the air to separate the long hairs and dirt from the fine fur, an old process known to old-time hatters. Fur today is processed by machine.
Using a mouthfull of water, he blew a fine spray over the gently falling fur. Next, he lifted and rolled the thin fur mat and worked it with his hands, dipping it frequently into a pot of boiling water. The fur shrank and fused toether, resulting in a little blanket of perfect felt. John B. surprised his companions by making a tent shelter from more of the newly made felt which withstood the weather very well.
It was during this period that John had an idea for a new hat which he designed. It was large, had a broad brim for protection from the sun and rain, and was high crowned. Shortly thereafter, a bullwacker met Stetson and his companions on the trail. He noticed the new hat, its ruggedness and servicebility, and was completly taken by the new style. He offered a five dollar gold piece for the hat and the first John B. Stetson was sold.
In his book, The Story of the Cowboy (1897), E. Hough had this to say about the cowboy's hat, "The hat of the cowboy is one of the typical and striking features of his costume, and one upon which he always bestows the greatest of care. The tenderfoot is known upon the range by his hat. He thinks it correct to wear a wide white hat, and so buys one for a couple of dollars. He is pained and grieved to find that at the ranch he is derided for wearing a "wool hat," and he is still more discontented with his head covering when he finds that the first heavy rain has caused it to lop down and lose all its shape. The cowboy riding by his side wears a heavy white felt hat with a heavy leather band buckled about it, which perhaps he bought five years before at a cost of fifteen or twenty dollars; but he refers with pride to the fact that it is a "genuwine Stetson, an' a shore good un." There has been no head covering devised so suitable as this for the uses of the plains. The heavy boardlike felt is practically indestructible. The brim flaps a little, and in time, comes to be turned up, and possibly held fast to the crown by means of a thong. The cowpuncher may stiffen the brim by passing a thong through a series of holes pierced through the outer edge. The heavy texture of this felt repels the blazing rays of the sun better than any helmet. There are no recorded cases of sunstroke on the range. The record might be different were straw hats or "derbys" substituted for the rational headgear which for so long has been the accepted thing in the cowboy country. The cowboy can depend upon his hat at all seasons. In the rain it is an umbrella. In the sun it is a shade and a safeguard. At night, if he sleeps cold, he can place it beneath his hips, and in the winter he can tie it down about his ears with his hankerchief, thus escaping the frostbite which sometimes assails tenderfeet who rely upon the best of caps with ear-flaps. A derby hat is classed contemptuously under the general term "hard hat."
In the book,"Tim McCoy Remembers the West," Tim writes about the cowboy's dress, "The only brand of hat allowed was Stetson, named after John B. Stetson, who made the first western hat." (1977)
For a year John remained in Pikes Peak placering for gold although he made no large fortune. But, he did gain his good health and was now big and strong. He decided it was time to return East and build a business.
Returning East, he stopped at St. Joseph, Missouori, to work in a brickyard. He became its manager and, later, part owner. One thing Stetson did not count on was Mother Nature. The Missouri river went on a rampage and overflowed, carrying two year's of hard work away on downstream (former accounts state this venture occurred on John B.'s trip West. In a personal interview with G. Henry Stetson, he states it happened on John's returning to the East coast.)
Still a young man and undaunted, at age thirty five, he had fresh ideas and was full of ambition. With his saved earnings from the Colorado diggings, he returned to Philadelphia. It was now 1865 and our country was setting about mending itself from the devastation of the Civil War.
During these times, Stetson prospered and his business was in an upstairs room located at Seventh and Callowell streets. This was the beginning of the John B. Stetson Company. Stetson was following the mold of the times and copied the current styles but, soon became unhappy with this style of marketing and decided to put his hidden ideas into effect.
Stetson's new hat concept did not meet with overnight success; fact is, he was informed, "Hat styles come from Europe." But Stetson was an enduring sort. He designed a hat of the finest, softest felt money could buy and at half the weight of other hats. He again visited the hat dealers and in one shop, his new creation caught the eye of a waiting customer who bought the hat on the spot. Quickly, the dealer placed an order for a dozen hats and Stetson had his first large order.
Still, not satisfied with the local trade, Stetson's thoughts drifted back to Colorado; the big hat and the five dollar gold piece he'd sold the hat for. He thought about the cowboy and cattle barons. Thus was born the western hat, "The Boss of the Plains." This new design was an immediate success and Stetson created new western hats.
Stetson's hats became "The Hat of the West." George Armstrong Custer is supposed to have worn a Stetson at the Little Big Horn battle. Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) wore the Stetson hat as a scout and later in his Wild West Show. Stetson even made a "Buffalo Bill" style hat. G. Henry Stetson remarked in one of my interviews that Bill Cody visited the Stetson Company once a year to pick out new hats.
There were many movie greats who wore Stetson hats, including Tim McCoy, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, and one of the all time greats, Tom Mix.
Again, in his book, "Tim McCoy Remembers the West," Tim writes, "In the early days of Hollywood, whenever we heard the term "Hollywood Cowboy," it was usually meant to imply a fellow wearing a tall white Stetson hat and high-heeled boots who worked in the motion-picture business. That term certainly never referred to an old-time cowhand working on the ranges of Wyoming, Montana or Oregon." Some later western actors who wore Stetson hats were John Wayne, Jim Arness, and Lorne Green.
In 1926, the Stetson Company sent a Tom Mix display around the country on tour. It included some of Tom's saddles, guns, photos, and two of his white Stetson hats in two different shapes. The Stetson Company has no record of this but I have a magazine photo of it from Tom's personal scrapbooks. (Books are in author's collection.)
Tom Mix wore only the Stetson brand before and after he became a western star. Stetson still makes this style today and calls it the Tom Mix hat. Tom Mix ordered dozens of his style hat and would take them on tour. He would present them to royalty and dignitaries; many of the hats were autographed.
Many other well knowns were Stetson fanciers. J. Frank Dobie, Owen Wister, The Texas Rangers, Royal Mounted Police of Canada, Zane Grey, and even the Boy Scouts of America. Today, according to the Stetson Company, there is no heavy emphasis on Stetson's for law enforcement agencies. Even the Boy Scout campaign hat is made by someone else today.
In 1950, Adams W. Calkins wrote some short articles on Cowboy life and had this to say about the western hat, "It's true nothin' makes a man look more like a cowboy than a big hat, but whatever the style, it's the pride of the puncher's outfit. A big hat's the earmark of the cow country, all right. But there's more to it than a wide brim. A range man kin' almost tell where a man comes from by the size and shape of his hat, and the way he creases it.
"With the sun soakin' the tallow outa his spinal column, the cowhand's wide brim is like ridin' in the shade of a Juniper tree. The high crown furnishes a heap o'space to keep the head cool. With a wide brim shadin' the eyes you can see long distances without gettin' sun-blind. And if the sun's at your back, you just tilt the old John B. for neck protection." The cowboy could use his hat for a canteen, quirt, water trough, or even a clothes duster."
In 1906, at the age of 76, John B. Stetson died, but he also left his mark as a humanitarian. Many of his efforts were seventy years ahead of today's "fringe benefits." Stetson was concerned with the welfare of his employees and many of his endeavors were "firsts" in the hat industry; some in any industry.
One of these was the Employees Building and Loan Association. What this did was to encourage restless and rootless employess to settle down. These funds also accumulated in this plan. Deserving employees were issued association shares as bonuses at Christmas time. These shares were paid for by the company to maturity. The association later became known as The Stetson Savings and Loan Association. The Association is no longer in existence.
John B. also extended other niceties such as cash bonuses to selected employees for long service and good work. Single men received hats and married men turkeys. Women employees were given gloves and candy. He established a dispensary and through its growth the Union Mission Hospital came into being in 1887, and ten years later, it was incorporated as the Stetson Hospital, which I was unable to find in the current area phonebook. Having a deep-rooted faith, he organized a non-dennominational neighborhood Union Sunday School.
Always, my return visits to G. Henry Stetson were warm and comfortable. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1887, and raised and attended school there. He learned the hat business from the ground floor up and then became a member of the board of directors at a young age.
His early years as a director involved a great deal of travel for the company. He related an instance he considered humorous that happened to him on one of his trips. G. Henry and Mrs. Stetson were visiting a Mr. Gunzeco Iguchi and members of the Tokyo Hat Company at a dinner given for the Stetsons. Mr. Stetson found sitting crosslegged at the low tables awkward. A backrest was provided so he could stretch out his legs. When it came time to get up, two men had to help Mr. Stetson to his feet.
On one particular visit, G. Henry showed me many memementos of the family. Then he asked me to meet in the patio for he had something to show me that had just arrived at his home. When he joined me on the patio a few minutes later, he was wearing a beautiful old style western hat. "How do you like it," he asked? "This is a copy of one of the first hats that my father made, The Boss of the Plains. Each of the Death Valley 49ers Encampment officials had one made as their official hat for the encampment." (1965)
The hat was indeed beautiful and I asked if it would ever be in production. I would like to purchase one for my collection of Stetson western hats. He said they would not; they were made only for the officials.
In earlier years, the Stetson Company had licensed agents outside of the Unites States to make hats to their specifications. At one time, there was a company in Mexico making Stetson Sombrero's.
Years ago, you could have a Stetson catalog sent to your home and you could order from it. Also, years ago, the western wear catalogs had a least three pages of Stetson western hats from which to choose. Today, you might see four or five models in a catalog.
Some of the many names of the models were San Fernando Valley, San Fran and San Fran Jr., Laloo and Laloo Jr., Oregon Trail, Sundance, and Texan. There was also a wider variety of colors than today.
In 1971, the Stetson Company moved to St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1987, the Stetson Hat company was purchased by the Resistol Hat company and all hat bodies are made by the company in Texas and all hats are shipped from the St. Joseph plant. The name Stetson is still maintained though.
Today, if you want a Stetson in a particular way, it probably will have to be ordered; you may not be able to get it made your way and a store has to order at least three hats of the same style at one time -- your's being one of the three. I checked this out with a few western stores in my general locality.
Last year, I was able to get a Stetson hat the way I wanted it. I found it through an ad in The Western Horseman magazine. The store was the Custom Cowboy Shop in Sheridan, Wyoming. I had the hat my way and in my hands within seven working days. I put a friend of mine in touch with this same shop and they had the same experience.
G. Henry Stetson died on January 11, 1983, at the age of 95. There are no longer any of the Stetson family connected with the Stetson firm.
My last visit with G. Henry Stetson was one I will never forget. After we had visited for a short time, he excused himself. When he returned, he presented me with one of the copies of The Boss of the Plains hats. It's one of the prize hats in my Stetson western hat collection.
An unknown author has written a fitting tribute to the Stetson hat in the form of a poem:
MY OLD STETSON HAT
A true companion through all these years.
Fanning broncs and longhorn steers,
I dedicate this to the old gray lid,
For the useful things the old hat did.
Used to decoy some rustler's lead
Or as a pillow beneath my head;
Coaxing a smouldering fire in the cold,
Panning dust in search of Gold.
Pushed up big and knocked down flat
Has been the lot of my Stetson hat;
For carrying oats to a piebald bronc,
Security for drinks at the Honky Tonk.
Mistreated, abused on a roundup spree.
Walked on, tromped on, old J.B.
Fighting fire in a clapboard shack,
And stopping wind in an open crack,
Been everywhere that a hat can go.
In forty-eight states and Mexico,
I've grown old as we trailed along,
While you, old hat, are going strong;
You have been a good pal through all of that,
You dirty, old gray Stetson hat.
Used with author's permission.