ALAMOSA — “These high-quality beaver hats would cost $800 and up to buy. In Santa Fe they would sell for about $1500,” said nationally known beaver felt hat maker, Tom Hirt.
Using his hands and tools of the trade from long ago, Hirt makes hats the old-fashioned way. “I wouldn’t know what to do with all the machinery if I walked into a modern-day hat factory,” he said.
Hirt normally works out of a shop in Penrose but agreed to teach a week-long class in July at Trinidad State in Alamosa. He also taught the class in Trinidad in June.
Decca Hodge, one of five who took the class, is a Texas native who summers in South Fork. She said, “It’s a great opportunity. I love the class. The instructor is good. We’re blessed. He has lots of patience!”
She told the class that her father paid $500 for a beaver felt hat on sale in Las Vegas in 2014. When he returned there in 2016 that same hat cost $2,495 – same brand and same style.
With class cost ranging between $500 and $600, including materials for one hat, the participants felt it was more than fair. Four of the five class members made two hats each with three of those being gifts for spouses. Hodge also brought a felt hat her dad had worn for 36 years. With Hirt’s help she cleaned and reshaped it.
“It’s just as good today as it was then,” said Hirt.
Like Hodge, Dr. L. VanOsdol, from northwest Oklahoma also spends summers in South Fork. “My family has been coming up here since the 50s,” she said. “I saw the newspaper article and thought it could be a new skill I could learn after retirement. I might set up a hat shop in South Fork!”
When asked where he hailed from, Tom Davis, the class jokester quipped, “My mother!” Davis is a local cowboy from La Jara who, at the age of 27, rode a horse with a string of pack animals from El Paso, Texas, to Fairbanks, Alaska. His book, “Be Tough or Be Gone,” details that six-month adventure. As a Viet Nam vet, Davis returned home suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He said horseback riding was his treatment.
As the class worked on their hats, the playful banter continued. Tom Hirt said, “With three women here I have to be careful what I say. I’ve already stuck my foot in my mouth more than once!”
Davis countered with, “I always like to hear from pretty ladies.” A gal in the room then informed him that she was a married pretty lady and he said, “I really like wives as long as they belong to somebody else.” When asked if he was married, he said, “My wife is.” He went on to explain, “I have always called the ladies hon or ma’am because I don’t remember their names but I never forget a set of hip pockets!”
On a more serious note Davis said, “I buy felt hats for myself and I thought I’d like to learn how to take care of them right and make ‘em, because they are expensive. I’ve been laid up with a leg for about five years. I wish I would have had this when they started puttin’ my new leg on because I had a lot of down time that I couldn’t do nothin’. I have no hobbies. I’m a rancher. We just work – eight days a week, 26 hours a day!” Davis broke a leg which became infected and ultimately was amputated. He just recently climbed back on a horse which he said is challenging with an artificial leg that has no bounce, but he was happy to be back on a horse again.
Mary Robbins, who describes herself as a “craftaholic,” lives in the Waverly district and raises llamas. The second hat she made is her husband’s Christmas present. (He already knows about it) Robbins also quilts, knits, spins, weaves, and makes candles and stained glass. She said she wanted to add felt hat making to her crafting repertoire. “I’m so glad this class is being held here in the Valley,” Robbins said. “I wouldn’t have gone to Trinidad to take it with the extra expense of food and lodging.”
In describing the steps to make a felt hat Robbins said they first turned the hat blanks upside down and poured water in them, let them soak, then poured the water out and set them on appropriate sized hat blocks to form them. Then they sanded the beaver fur until it was smooth, ironed the hats, cut the brims and hand creased the crowns after steaming them.
Dale Bartee, the youngest class member, a 1994 Sargent high school graduate, ranches in the Center area. He said, “I’m just doing it for something fun. We got all the hay up and I’m letting the sprinklers do their thing and I’m doing the hat.” Bartee made one hat and brought in two older ones to reshape and clean.
The participants said they were happy with their creations and enjoyed the workshop. Davis put his spin on it. “Every day is the first day of the rest of your life. And life’s what you make it. You can make it good or you can make it bad. The choice is strictly yours. Every day is what you make it.”
And make they did – hats and memories.
Captions: Tom Hirt demonstrates cutting a hat brim while Mary Robbins looks on. Courtesy photo by Margaret Sanderson
Workshop participants are wearing and holding their creations. From left are Dr. L. VanOsdol, Tom Davis, Decca Hodge, Dale Bartee, Tom Hirt and Mary Robbins. Courtesy photo by Todd Cotton