This year, the esteemed cowboy hat company celebrates 100 years of making some of the highest-quality headgear in the West.
Keith Maddox has a favorite story he likes to tell about cowboy hats.
“I was checking in to the Marriott Marquis in New York City when the front desk clerk admired my hat and commented on it,” Maddox recalls. “He asked if I’d like an upgrade, and of course I replied, ‘Yes, that would be nice.’ As he was typing on the computer, he said, ‘Mr. Maddox, you’re going to call me in about 15 minutes and thank me.’ When I found my room, it was a beautiful suite with three separate entrances and a great view — thanks to my hat!”
Maddox is partial to cowboy hats, and not just for the room upgrades. The owner, with wife Susan, of American Hat Company in Bowie, Texas, Maddox figures — as near as he can count off the top of his head — he’s got 28 of them. So devoting his life to the art of the cowboy hat was kind of a no-brainer.
After a practically legendary career in the Westernwear industry (Heyer Boots, Tony Lama, Larry Mahan), Maddox made his lifelong dream of owning a cowboy hat company a reality when he bought storied Houston hatmaker American Hat Company in 2003. Founded in 1915 by Russian immigrant Sam Silver, American Hat Company began its life in a modest storefront on Louisiana Street. For almost 40 years, the company was run by Sam’s grandson, Maurice “Bubba” Silver, “a haberdasher who changed the Western-wear business by developing a water-resistant straw hat,” as his obit in theHouston Chronicle described him.
A longtime fixture on the H-town Western scene, the business was operating out of nearby Conroe when Maddox bought it. “It was my love of the Western lifestyle and wanting to carry on the tradition of the American cowboy that attracted me to American Hat Company,” Maddox says. And it was his determination to get out of the South Texas humidity that led him to move the operation in 2004 to Bowie, a small town an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth, where American Hat Company set up shop on the edge of town in the former Haggar Slack Factory building.
When he took over, Maddox brought the company’s history with him, including the priceless, almost-century-old equipment and hat blocks — and a certain longtime employee named Andre Trevino. To hear company president Keith Mundee tell it, it just wouldn’t be American Hat Company without Trevino. The story goes that when he was 12, Trevino saw a bag in the company’s parking lot. It was a bag of money that belonged to Bubba Silver.
Trevino picked up the bag, walked it into the building, and returned it. “I don’t want a reward,” Trevino told Silver. “I want a job.”
He started working after school sweeping and doing odd jobs. Forty-five years later — nearly half of the life of the company — Trevino’s still with American Hat, now as factory manager. “He’s here at 5 a.m. every day,” Mundee says. “He’s the most loyal, honest guy, and he loves hats. He says, ‘I would come to work here even if you didn’t pay me.’ That’s how much he loves it.”
It’s the power of the cowboy hat itself and American Hat’s mantra of quality that inspire that kind of devotion. But it’s a dream that nearly ended in catastrophe the year after Maddox moved the company to Bowie. On November 27, 2005, a grassfire swept through town; the blaze was so close to American Hat that firefighters used the parking lot as a command post. “The factory building wasn’t flamed out; it was smoked out,” Mundee says. The loss was devastating: $13.5 million in raw hat bodies and not enough insurance to cover it. “But Mr. Maddox kept the employees working. He ordered more hat bodies. He went into his 401(k) and second-mortgaged his house. He did everything he could to keep it alive. A lesser man would have quit. But his attitude was, I can’t quit — it’s this or nothing.”
There’s no sign of that terrible setback today. Stacks and stacks of boxed hats line the factory floor ready for shipping. The hiss of steam and the clatter of 100-year-old equipment fill the air as some 55 employees busily block, press, cut, sand, and shape. Over here, Maria, her thumb and index finger wrapped in masking tape, is sewing wire into straw hats. Over there, Anna, outfitted in two pairs of cut--resistant blue latex gloves, is hand-cutting brims with razor blades. Guys in respirators are double dipping in the lacquer room before the hats head off to the oven room for baking.
The place hums and gives off an air of being exactly what Maddox always hoped to create: a great place to work on his goal of “building the very best cowboy hat in the world.”
Mundee, wearing his American Hat Company stars-and-stripes logo shirt and his prized 1,000X beaver-mink fur felt, surveys the factory floor and sums up the gratification that comes with the job: “I don’t really sell hats,” he says. “I sell family heirlooms and membership into an exclusive club. The cowboy hat is a symbol of all the good things a cowboy represents.”
From the February/March 2015 issue.