ALAMOSA — Over 20 years ago economics and happenstance steered Tom Hirt of Penrose towards hatmaking with beaver hats on permanent display at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the (Gene) known for his high quality, beaver-fur felt hats.
“There’s nothing better than the durability of a beaver hat,” said Hirt, “You just can’t hurt a Hirt hat!”
As the four-time winner of the best hat maker in the country award, Hirt is a highly recognized “hatter.” He uses tools from a bygone era, to fashion hats one by one.
“I am a dying breed,” he said. “My shop is like a living museum. My hats are made like they were made in the late 1800s or early 1900s. That makes me uniquely different. I could not walk in to a modern-day hat shop like Stetsons and use their machinery. I use my hands.”
Hirt’s antique collection of hundreds of crown blocks provides the bases over which an almost endless variety of hat shapes can be formed.
He is passing this age-old method of making felt hats along to others. For the third time, he will be teaching a week-long workshop in Trinidad at Trinidad State Junior College from May 29 thru June 2. For the first time, he will be offering the same workshop at Trinidad State in Alamosa from July 10 thru July 14.
A colorful work history preceded Hirt’s interest in hatmaking. “I could have owned a McDonald’s chain and been driving around in my Porsche right now and own a big ranch,” Hirt said as he laughed.
When he was a teen working at a McDonald’s restaurant, Ray Croc (who joined McDonald’s in 1954 and made it the most successful fast-food business in the world) walked in one day and announced that McDonald’s would be offering breakfast. Hirt, who was working that day, made the very first “Egg Mcmuffin” as he stood next to Ray Croc!
“That,” said Hirt, “was my claim to fame at McDonald’s!”Croc then offered to give Hirt a store anywhere in the country he wanted to go and even offered to send him to McDonald’s University for training. Hirt’s immediate response was, “What?!” But, teenager that he was, Hirt’s young heart was set on cowboying. He simply could not picture himself flipping burgers for the rest of his life! He turned Croc down.
“Just think how huge that could have been?” he muses now.
But he doesn’t regret the path his life took. Two early loves would consume his time through the 70s and into the 80s – acting and cowboying. After working on a movie for several months, he would cowboy for several months and then back to acting when a double was needed. (A double or stand-in sets the scene for the famous actor by repeating the scene over and over while any concerns are addressed. The famous actor then steps in and only needs to repeat the scene once or twice to complete it.) As a single person, Hirt enjoyed this ping pong lifestyle for years. About cowboying Hirt said, “That kind of stuff is in a guy’s blood. I still have horses and cows. They are a part of my life.”
Hirt said his stand-in work for famous actors was enjoyable but never netted him the starring roles he had hoped for. “I was always hoping I would get a break and become the next Gary Cooper or John Wayne,” he said. “When we did a movie called ‘Manhunt for Claude Dallas,’ I remember sitting on the tailgate of a pick-up truck doing a romantic scene with a girl. You get the whole thing set-up but you never get to kiss the girl!” He told about another time Jason Robards needed to do a scene sitting on a horse, but Robards didn’t want to get on the horse, so Hirt climbed on instead. He also played dead for Mark Harmon (currently Gibbs on NCIS) in “Comes a Horseman” and many, many more.
A very long actors’ strike forced Hirt to seek other employment. Although he no longer acts, his connection with that industry opened the door to hat making for the movies. Recently he has been asked to make hats for “Heartland,” a series from Canada. For the movie “Tombstone” he made all the hats for the main characters, such as Doc Holiday, and he shaped many more.
After a friend of past President Reagan purchased one of Hirt’s hats for the president, Reagan was so pleased that he asked the White House Secretary to call Hirt. When Hirt heard, “The president requested two more hats,” Hirt immediately answered, “Yes, sir!” He added, “It was very flattering, a high point in my career. I received a very nice letter from the president!”
His hatmaking days began during the acting strike. He was in downtown Colorado Springs when he noticed a hat shop on the corner of Tejon just off Nevada. Curious, he walked in to investigate. Several visits and many questions later, he became an apprentice. Eventually he took over the shop enabling the owner to retire. He would later move his business to Penrose, about 40 minutes southwest of Colorado Springs. Hirt’s hat business took off with a jump start when Dick Spencer, a past publisher for Western Horseman Magazine, publicized Hirt’s rare “breed” of hats.
Hirt also runs a chuck wagon business and recently returned from a National Chuckwagon Championship Cook-off in Fredericksburg, Texas, where his team won fourth place. They are booked every weekend from now through the first two weeks in June. He often cooks on Saturdays at Coyote’s Coffee Din in Penrose. One might think a chuck wagon would specialize in barbeque dishes, but Hirt’s is a Dutch-oven business and he cooks with natural herbs and spices making the meal as close to an authentic cattle-drive chuck wagon dinner in the 1800s as he can. In addition to the meat dish, the menu might include biscuits, potato and bean dishes and cobbler.
Several years ago, Keith Gipson, Dean of Instruction at Trinidad State in Trinidad, accompanied his wife who plays guitar, at the Coyote Coffee Din. His ensuing visit with Hirt led to the topic of hats which eventually led to a week-long workshop at the college. Gipson took that first class.
“I was impressed with how durable a felt hat is,” he said. “Aside from ripping, tearing, or poking a hole in it, you can’t hurt felt hats. The first thing you do with the hat blank (one solid piece of animal fur for both the crown and the brim) is fill it with hot water to prepare it for shaping. In addition to making my own hat, I was able to resurrect a hat I had when I was 17! The class was really interesting and fun.”
“I would never be good if I had to stand up in front of a class and teach,” said Hirt. “When the students walk in to the class, they begin work on a hat. When they walk out a week later, they walk out with a hat that they made.”
His motto, “Your imagination is my limitation” encourages some pretty creative thinking which makes class more exciting. He has observed that women are much more detail oriented than men and want fancy trim. Their hand dexterity is better and they are more creative and can readily do their own sewing. Most guys simply say, “I want a hat that looks like this.” He enjoys the variety when guys and gals take the same class.
Simplified steps to creating a felt hat: Select a crown block, steam the fur, shape the fur over the block and leave overnight. Shape the brim, pounce the hat (sand the rough fur off the hat), iron, add trim, and then shape the hat.
For more information or to register, call Donna Haddow at 1-800-621-8752 Ext. 5724 or e-mail [email protected]
These week-long, hands-on workshops are not for college credit and are limited to eight students to allow time for plenty of individual attention. Each day the workshops run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour for lunch. The deadline to register for the Trinidad Campus workshop (May 29 – June 2) is April 25. For Alamosa’s workshop (July 10-14) the deadline is May 30. This allows time for Tom Hirt to confer with each student and gather needed supplies.
“I can’t bring my whole shop!” he joked!
Caption: Jack Vier, Le Lu, Tom Hirt (instructor), and Andrea Zanella model the felt hats they created in last year’s class. Courtesy photo by Greg Boyce