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Until recently, I never myself owned a cowboy hat. Then I met Jimmy Harrison.
I have envied many cowboy hats in my life. John Wayne’s, for instance, which is iconically famous, a big hat for a big man, its very wide brim reminding me of a ship’s wake making its way across a troubled sea. Clint Eastwood’s is not as grand, but it very much suggests the character that he plays in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The hat is grizzled and slow to burn. It says little. Its crown resembles a dented tin can that its owner has carried around from one gunfight to the next.
Then there is Noah Beery Jr.’s. A lot of people may not remember him, a character actor who played in many westerns from the thirties to the fifties and went on to a career on television’s Rockford Files as James Garner’s father. He is one of my favorite screen cowpokes, principally because of his hat. It resembles a porkpie, its narrow brim rolled up all the way around. He wears the hat back on his head, a shock of hair coming out from beneath it to adorn his forehead. In Red River, one of John Wayne’s greatest films, Beery’s character, Buster McGee, is always identifiable because of this hat, which is totally unique among those of all the other cowboys in the movie. Even in the famous roundup scene that begins with the cowpunchers whooping it up individually, each one singled out by the camera through almost a dozen cameo close-ups, Beery’s is special because the hat makes him look like a little kid hurrying to play cowboy. He’s excited, happy and ready to ride.
Then, in the chaotic scene filled with long shots in which the cattle are, indeed, being rounded up by all the cowboys, you can identify Beery immediately because of his hat. Horses are flying around. Cattle are confused and afraid. Dust is everywhere. Beery on his horse battles all these elements, his hat consistently reminding you of exactly which cowpoke he is.
Jimmy Harrison is the founder and proprietor of Double H Custom Hat Company
in Darby, Montana, and among those who know their hats, he is a famous man. He has built hats — his phrase — for Dick Butkus, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, chef Paul Prudhomme and former Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, among many thousands of other customers.
Jimmy operates out of his store in downtown Darby, a town of perhaps a thousand people at the southern end of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. He builds several lines of hats that he displays in the shop, but his favorites—and his most popular—are those he custom builds for individual clients. The workroom behind his store is a place filled with hundreds of remnants of felt and leather, hand tools, work tables, hat forms, hand-made hat bands, photographs of Jimmy, his family, friends and customers, all in a seeming jumble of confusion. But it is also a place where careful thought, individual pride, precise handiwork, thoughtful design and only the best of materials come together in each individual hat. “I guarantee everything,” he says. “You can wear these hats forever.”
My fitting for a Double H hat took about twenty minutes. Jimmy sat me down on a stool in the shop and brought out a metal device that he fitted over my head. It was a kind of airy helmet. One circular piece of thin, pliant metal went around my head horizontally. It was connected to a few pieces of the same metal that fit over the top of my head, front to back and side to side. There were bolt-like adjusters that tightened or loosened the whole device as Jimmy set about figuring out the exact outside dimensions of my skull.
He took many notes. As he carefully adjusted the device, I felt that I was being examined by a nineteenth century physiognomist to determine the nature of my inner being, my character and the level of my intelligence. I also briefly felt as though I were being readied for the electric chair. But finally Jimmy was satisfied, and he told me there would be no problem building a hat that I would truly value. It came to my office in San Francisco about six weeks later, and fit perfectly.
Among hat makers, Jimmy is a purest. “I guarantee everything,” he says. “I put the ‘HH’ brand on every hat I make, and that means it’s the highest quality. The materials in my hats are simple. The prime quality is a 100 percent beaver felt, and I also make a less expensive model with a 50-50 mixture of beaver and rabbit felt.” He removes his own, a black cowboy hat that appears to be in perfect shape, brand new. “This one’s 15 years old. 100 percent beaver. It still holds its shape perfectly. It blocks very well, and I wash it once a year. So it’s been washed 15 times.” He holds it out before him for inspection. It still looks pristine. “You’re not going to get a hat like this somewhere else.”
Making these hats is not Jimmy’s only talent. As a very young man, he rode steers and horses in the rodeo. This was tough duty. “It wasn’t the same then as it is now. Now you’ve got all this money and big prizes. When I was doing it, it was for the fun of it. The skill. You’d take a fall. You’d get back up. You know, I’d make a couple hundred dollars a year and think that was great.”
But there was a price to be paid. Once, while riding a bronco, Jimmy was thrown to the ground with such force that he broke his pelvis in several places. “Yeah, it had to be knitted back up again.” Jimmy took it pretty much in stride, but decided that another line of work was in order. “But there weren’t a lot of physical jobs I could do, and I really enjoy working with my hands.” Jimmy had already been learning about shaping hats, and he saw that he had a distinct talent for this sort of thing, “Building a hat appealed to me. It’s a tangible product, and you can see that you’ve done something.”
So he apprenticed himself to Sheila Kirkpatrick, a custom hat maker in Wisdom, Montana. He had known her for years, and had heard that she was going to sell her business. He asked if he could learn the basics from her, and with that he set about mastering the art. “And I’ve done pretty good,” Jimmy smiles.
Incidentally, Jimmy shrugs at the idea that rodeo was a very dangerous thing to be doing. “I worked as a cowboy for some years, too. And I think I probably got more injuries from that than from riding those broncos.”
“One of the hardest hats to make,” Jimmy says, “is an old beat up one. Someone will bring in his grandfather’s hat, that looks like it’s been out in the backyard in heavy weather for years. It’s got big stains. The brim is faded and it’s lost its shape. You know, it looks terrible. But the guy loves it because it was his grandfather’s. So he wants a new one just like it. In just as bad a condition, but a brand new one.” Jimmy shrugs. “That’s very hard to do.” He surveys his shop and all the examples of his artisan craftsmanship. “But that’s part of the game. That’s what they want.”
For Jimmy, the customer is king. “If I make a hat that suits you, it will become part of you. I’ve had people come into the store and the fellow will buy a cowboy hat for his wife, custom-designed, custom-fitted. And when she gets it, she’ll say ‘This is so beautiful, I want to hang it on a wall.’ But you know, a year later, they’ll come back in, and she’ll have the hat on, and her husband will tell me ‘Jimmy, she wears that hat everywhere she goes.'”
He looks around the shop, at the shelves and racks that hold the myriad non-custom hats he has built (nonetheless by hand, nonetheless of top quality) and nods. His own black hat adds unmistakable cachet to the gesture. “My favorite customer? Someone who’s gonna appreciate it. And above all, no one that leaves here with one of my hats is gonna look silly. I make the top quality hat, and people like the fact that I can give them one.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.