Summer Hatmaking Class grows in popularity
Trinidad Campus / June 11, 2018 / Written by Greg Boyce
Now in its fourth year, Trinidad State’s Southern Rockies Heritage School Hatmaking Class continues to grow in popularity. On day one there were nine students, one teacher and a total of 29 hats. Seventeen were blanks, ready to be formed and customized, a few were examples. Most of the rest rode in atop their owners, sporting the scars and stains of everyday use. You see, many of these students feel more comfortable wearing a hat day or night, indoors or out. And what better place to sport a hat than at a class on hatmaking.
The laid-back leader is Tom Hirt of Penrose, Colorado, known by many as Hatmaker for the Movies. His custom made hats have graced the heads of Sam Elliot, Sharon Stone and Val Kilmer. He made two for President Ronald Reagan. He takes time each summer and passes on what he knows at a week-long class in Trinidad and another at Trinidad State’s Alamosa Campus. At the end of five days all the students will take home a brand new beaver and rabbit fur hat – most will take home two.
There are enough steps and nuances to the process, along with specialized tools, that if would be very difficult to learn this through a book or video. This class fits perfectly with the Heritage School’s goal of preserving arts and crafts that might otherwise be lost. Hirt’s techniques use few mechanical tools. “Everything’s done by hand,” said Hirt. “Which is the way it was done 100 years ago.”
“I know hatters, who are making hats for a living, who don’t have these skills. Some of my competitors have called me and said, ‘Tom, I’m in a bind. My machine broke down. Can you do this or that for me?’ And they’ve sent me work that I’ve done by hand for them because they don’t know how to do it.”
Student Mike Marsh, also from Penrose, got interested in hats after researching his family history. “I started noticing all these different hats. They all wore hats, women, men. From there it kind of progressed. I started sewing, and now I’m cleaning them and making them.” On day one Marsh wore his vintage World War I Stetson Army Officer’s hat from 1911. He loves hats so much he wants to make them professionally. “You almost get intimidated to be around (Tom). Especially as an up-and-comer. I would get scared to show him something that I did, but he was more than helpful and was great about it.” It was Hirt who recommended Marsh spend a week in this hatmaking class. Now Marsh is more excited than ever. “I bought 12 or 13 blocks, I got all the sizes, the same sewing machine he has and I’ve got people that are already wanting them.”
The senior member of the group is Jerry Papke from Bullhead City, Arizona. At 93, he’s seen a lot. He grew up on Flathead Lake in Montana and joined the Marines at 17. He served in World War II in the Pacific, later he worked for the Forest Service and was a logger. He became an aircraft mechanic and eventually a pilot, retiring in 1985 as a Captain at Western Airlines. But when he wasn’t wearing a uniform he always wore a cowboy hat. “In the West, a hat was pretty acceptable. Keeps the pine needles from going down your neck and the snow and rain. You really weren’t quite dressed unless you’ve got a hat on.” Papke is admittedly curious and likes to learn, but he was never much for school. He dropped out of high school before joining the Marines. Hirt’s classes feature no lecture, only show and do. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really interesting,” said Papke. “I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s a really good class for someone like me who lives in a cowboy hat.”
“The first time I did this I was winging it,” said Hirt. “But now I’ve got it down to a routine. Day one we start working. I’m not going to explain something on a blackboard.”
Bill Rogers of Nacogdoches, Texas has been coming to Trinidad State for summer gunsmithing courses for about 15 years. He’s recently moved a more artistic direction. This summer he’ll take four week-long classes: Hatmaking, Holster Making, Knife Making and Damascus Billet Making.
The only female in the group is Valerie Beard of Kim, Colorado. She and her husband live on a ranch near the Colorado/New Mexico border. “My husband and I perform Cowboy Poetry. So this one’s for him and this one’s mine. They’ll be stage hats.” She distinguished herself as the top student when it comes to handling an iron. And as it turns out, hatmaking requires a lot of ironing.
Hirt’s business is as brisk as ever. “Right now I’m doing three good-sized projects for Val Kilmer. He’s going to be marketing them on his website. So I’m manufacturing and he’s selling.” Kilmer played Doc Holliday in the 1993 movie Tombstone and wore a black hat made by Hirt. “This is the 25th anniversary of the movie, so he wants to promote his character that he did in that movie by producing hats. All the hats are exactly like the Doc Holliday hat, but in different sizes. “My name is on every hat,” said Hirt, “along with his name. When I get home (to Penrose) I’ll ship them a dozen hats and then a month later I’ll probably ship them another dozen.” He sent Kilmer a dozen Doc Holliday hats already.
“This class is turning out to be a fun thing, sharing what I know. I can’t tell you how many calls I got about this class. It’s really catching on, which is what we want. Everybody here is going to tell somebody else.” With the earthy wisdom of a cowboy Hirt mused, “Someday I’m going to die and look at everybody who has had a chance enjoy this. That’s kind of the rhythm of life.”
Craig Mattingly and Tom Hirt trim brim with Mike Marsh in background.