AMERICAN ORIGINAL

My Love Letter to the Stetson

Worn by cowboys, presidents, lawmen, and Texas Rangers alike, the Stetson ‘Open Road’ is a rugged yet gentlemanly hat—and when I was a boy, I couldn’t wait to have one of my own.

The hat was a treasure.

I used to rummage around in my father’s closet, where there were all kinds of cool dad stuff to check out. But by far the most interesting object, which held enormous fascination for me, sat high up on the top shelf. It was a Stetson “Open Road” hat.

My dad had worked for a while as a ranch hand, and his “Open Road” was a remnant of those days. I marveled at the rugged but classy Western look of the hat, and I couldn’t wait until I would be old enough to own one myself.

The distinguishing characteristic of an “Open Road”-style hat is that the width of the brim is thinner than typical cowboy hats, only 2 1/2 inches, which makes it a bit more formal and gentlemanly. More of a dress hat.

You’ve seen this hat. It’s the one worn by Texas Rangers and lawmen in the famous shots of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. It’s the one President Johnson famously wore. It is also the one worn by Presidents Eisenhower, Truman, and George W. Bush.

And on Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was offered an “Open Road” by the city of Fort Worth, as was its tradition. But Kennedy declined, as was his tradition. His decision not to wear a hat to his inauguration, or any other time, for that matter, altered men’s fashion.

Indeed, because of declining hat sales in the ’60s, Stetson closed its original factory in Philadelphia in 1970, though to this day it licenses its name through other manufacturers and distributors.

Beyond making the “Open Road,” the John B. Stetson Company was the most successful hat maker in the world, selling more than 3 million hats a year during its heyday. Stetson was responsible for creating the original cowboy hat worn by anyone and everyone associated with the American West, including Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, and Will Rogers. Reportedly, George Custer wore a Stetson into Little Big Horn.

John B. Stetson was born in 1830 in New Jersey, the son of a hat maker. He headed west in 1860 for health reasons and to join the gold rush in Colorado. While panning for gold, he made himself a large hat from the hides he had collected on his trip. It had a wide brim and a tall crown, which created an insulated pocket of air and could also be used to carry water.

Legend has it a successful cowboy saw Stetson’s hat and offered him a $5 gold piece, making the cowboy the first owner of a John B. Stetson hat.

Stetson returned east in 1865 and created his own hat company, which produced high-quality hats made for outdoor use. Based on the hat he had created for himself, Stetson made a version called “The Boss of the Plains.” A gifted marketer, he sent samples of the hat to merchandisers all over the West, asking for a minimum order of a dozen.

As the orders came streaming in, Stetson set up a huge factory in Philadelphia and quickly became the largest hat-seller in the world.

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Former Texas governor Ann Richards was a big fan of the Texas Rangers, a contingent of which was her protective detail. They were easy to spot. Most looked like young Clint Eastwoods, with boots on their feet, revolvers on their hips, and Stetson “Open Roads” on their heads.

One day while Richards was campaigning, someone reported there was a bomb on her small plane. It was hot Texas summer day, and Richards was forced to sit for hours on the tarmac with no electricity and no air conditioning, baking in the plane and fearing for her life. She loved to relate what finally happened:

“I was petrified and dripping in sweat when at long last, the plane door cracked open and a celestial shaft of light lit up the plane. A 6-foot-4 gorgeous Texas Ranger leaned into the tiny space. He tipped his Stetson ‘Open Road’ and said, “Afternoon, Governor. I’m J. W. Hildebrand, Texas Ranger. I’m here to take you home and tuck you in.’

“I was so relieved, until I thought about my dirty pantyhose hanging on the shower at home.”

Just another example of a guy in a John B. Stetson hat saving the day.