Former rodeo contestant, master hatter, businesswoman, cancer charity founder, Cowgirl Hall of Famer — Lavonna "Shorty" Koger is also an American treasure.
Shorty Koger is a woman who's hard to miss. Walking into her office at Shorty's Caboy Hattery in the heart of Oklahoma City's dusty and historic Stockyards City district, Shorty walks with the confidence of a woman who, despite the jeering of men all her life, has carved a niche in the Western world out of sheer stubbornness.
Bedecked in a pinstriped gold and white striped shirt tucked neatly into a starched dark pair of jeans, Shorty sports a cowboy hat of her own creation — a bone-colored jaunty thing accented with dark brown buck-stitching along the brim and the hatband.
Around her waist, a shiny massive belt buckle proclaims "Art of the Cowgirl/Master Hatter Shorty Koger." It sparkles when Shorty walks in, as stout and strong as the horses she grew up riding and competing on. She strides to her desk and points to the massive stuffed beaver that poses like some hairy dragon on the shelf near the wall.
"A customer sent that to me but didn't tell me. I came into the store and found this huge box, and I thought it was a bunch of hats that needed to be renovated and cleaned," Shorty says in her low scrub-brush voice. "I opened it up and I saw that fur, and it scared me to death."
Beaver is important in Shorty's world. It's used, sometimes in blend with rabbit, in all of her handmade-in-America custom hat creations. And that attention to materials, consistency, and detail has made Shorty one of the few hatters known globally for creating the truly custom pieces. In the back of the store, cast-iron machines that were top-of-the-line back in the 1920s and during the Great Depression are still used to steam, shape, and smooth the beaver felt that are destined to become Shorty's signature hats. A small army of polite women and men work the machines with nimble hands before using their own elbow grease to sand down the felt and shape the crown.
For Shorty, making and restoring cowboy hats in the traditional and hand-hewn way is a lost art. For a woman to create a hat empire in a traditionally masculine world of cowboys and Western heritage is near unheard-of. For more than 30 years, however, this gray-haired, dry-humored woman has done just that, turning an obsession with cowboy culture into an art form that attracts fans from as far as Israel, Australia, Italy, and Asia.
"When I went into business, there were maybe six hatmakers in the whole United States," Shorty says. "I was the only woman who started a hat-making business by myself."
Shorty's hats, as well as her support of Western culture and history in Oklahoma and beyond, earned her a place in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2021, an accolade that Shorty says is the biggest honor of her life.
In loving memory of Shorty's sister Vonda Lea McGavran
February 14, 1938–September 6, 2022
Born on Valentine's Day
"She was a sweetheart."
A Cowgirl And A Dreamer
Born in 1945 in Oklahoma City, Shorty, given name "Lavonna," spent most of her youth in the tiny community of Fairfax in Oklahoma's northeastern Osage County. Amid the sprawling hills of giant cattle ranches, Shorty's family traveled once a week into town for groceries and supplies.
"Mom and Dad would go into Fairfax to buy groceries, and I always remembered these three cowboys who were actors. They were Randolph Scott, Ben Johnson, and an actor whose name I can't remember," Shorty says. "I was about 5 at the time, and I saw them out in front of the movie theater. I couldn't do anything but stare at them because they had one real colorful cowboy shirts and boots, and their hats were really cool shaped. I thought to myself, Man I'd love to be a cowboy."
When Shorty told her mother she wanted to be a cowboy, her mother told her she was a girl, and girls didn't get to be cowboys.
"I said, "Well, I'm still gonna be a cowboy," Shorty says, leaning back in her chair behind her desk with the attitude of someone used to not particularly caring what others thing. She smiles mischievously, the giant gold National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame medallion around her neck catching the light, and it's easy to picture her as a stubborn little cowgirl stamping her foot at the unfair idea that girls can't be cowboys.
After Shorty's father moved the family to the small Oklahoma City suburb of Moore when Shorty was about 10, that convention-defying nature became even stronger. She was sent home from school one day for eschewing the frilly dresses of her female classmates for jeans and boots.
"Back in grade school, every time we had recess, I would beat the boys at marbles, and they would get so made at me," she says. "There are boys I went to school with who still tell stories about how I'd whip them. I didn't mind fighting. If they picked a fight, I was gonna finish it."
Shorty got her first horse, a scrawny, bony little goal that eventually grew to 17 hands high, when she was a teenager. She taught herself to ride bareback, eventually galloping into the world of barrel racing and bull riding.
"I didn't know how to do any of this stuff — it just was trial and error, like everything I've done in my life just about," she says. "When I was in high school, I had a really good horse that won competitions just about everywhere I went. That was the year I thought I was gonna make it to the National Finals Rodeo here in Oklahoma City."
Although Shorty worked the rodeo circuit, earning a name for herself as a fearless rider and for her never-say-die spirit, she struggled to find a career that would fulfill her cowboy dreams. She ran a Western store for a while, helped a friend start a Subway sandwich shop, and ponied horses up the starting line at the horse races at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds raceway.
"Honestly, I was obsessed with cowboy culture," Shorty says. "My love was always with the Western lifestyle."
After Shorty's father died in the 1970s, her brother sent off two of her father's cowboy hats to be renovated and cleaned. "When my brother got those hats back and they were ruined, he told me 'As much as you love rodeos, you ought to get in the hat-cleaning business.' It was like a bolt of lightning. I said, 'Holy cow. What a great idea!"
The Making Of A Hat Master
Getting into the hat-cleaning wasn't as simple as it sounded, but it was serendipitous. One day in the 1980s, a friend of Shorty's invited her to come with her to pick up a custom hat made by an Oklahoma City artist who worked out of his house.
"I went back over there in a day or two, and said, 'I would love to learn how to do this.' He said he had his business up for sale but already had a buyer. I said, 'Well, let me ask you this: IF the buyer doesn't show up, would you sell it to me?' And he said, 'Oh, absolutely!'"
The original buyer never showed up. Shorty managed to scrape together $20,000 from family members and through loans to buy the business and the original equipment. She put that money in the man's hand, and suddenly she was in the hat business.
Like everything else in her life, Shorty learned the art of hat renovation and creation by trial and error. She nearly blew up Stockyards City using an old steam barrel that had a gas leak. She passed out from the caustic cleaning solutions used to clean the felt hats and she burned herself on irons and steam too many times to count.
Over the next 30-plus years, Shorty's reputation and skill grew, but so did the challenges. After losing her sister to cancer and being diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 2004, she brought on Bobbie Gough, the "grease that holds the machine together." Today, Bobbie and Shorty continue to run Shorty's Caboy Hattery in Oklahoma City and traveling throughout the country to massive shows and competitions.
Each of Shorty's hats starts out with quality beaver and rabbit fur from Ukraine. That fur is used to make generic "hat bodies" at Tennessee's Winchester Hat Co. before the bodies are sent to Shorty's Caboy (slang for cowboy), where Shorty and her crew sand the rough felt into a smooth finish. Each custom hat takes at least five days to make, but the handcrafted effort pays off. Shorty's hats start at $795 and go up to $2,000. she makes more than 1,000 custom hats a year for ranchers and cowboys and celebrities like Reba McEntire and Lyle Lovett. But in Shorty's eyes, everybody who wears one of her hats in a celebrity.
Hall Of Fame
In 2021, Shorty Koger was among the five annual inductees at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. The honor, say her fans, was long overdue. In the course of 15 years, more than 20 nomination letters were sent to the committee about Shorty. In 2015, Shorty had been honored with the Bud Breeding Oklahoma Spirit Award from the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame, but she'd never dreamed of being inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame organization.
"I remember the lady in charge, Pat Riley, called me, but I didn't think anything of it. I was playing Mexican dominoes with my family, and I just figured she wanted me to sponsor something," Shorty says. "I called her back later that day. It never entered my mind I would be inducted. She told me, and I got real quiet. She said, 'This is the first time I've ever heard you speechless.'"
The induction ceremony in October 2021 was among the largest events in the history of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. More than 1,300 people attended. "It truly was the biggest honor," Shorty says. "I was a wreck for a year, because I had to get up and speak in front of those 1,300 people."
At 77, Shorty has no plans to slow down. She still runs her shop, travels throughout the United States to show and events, and still has a hand in every creation that comes out of her shop.
On the rodeo circuit, barrel racers and calf ropers sport her creations, but the "quarter horse people" are among her biggest customers. And she has her die-hard local fans as well. As we stroll around her hattery showroom in Oklahoma City, a man walks in and the two greet each other as old friends. Shorty points to a display hat covered in signatures and scrawling.
"I got that hat from Shorty 23 years ago," says Joe Carter of Oklahoma City. "I'm a veterinarian, and that hat went all over the world. We went on a cultural exchange to Russia, where we met Gorbachev. That hat's been to Moscow. It's been to London, Jerusalem a couple of times, Saigon, Tanzania, and up Mount Kilimanjaro."
After 10 years of traveling the world in Shorty's custom hat, Carter donated the well-worn item back to the store.
"She's the best there is," Carter says, watching as Shorty rumbles off to talk with another customer.
Shorty wraps up the conversation after getting a pointed look from Bobbie. In a matter of days, they will travel to Ohio for the All American Quarter Horse Congress, a multiweek production that is one of the biggest shows in the country. From there, the two will hat a half-dozen other shows throughout the West and South, booking their schedule for almost an entire six months.
Maybe along the way, she and Bobbie will connect with the more than 50 family members scattered across the land who attended her induction in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and the hundreds of people in the Western world who wear her hats and call her friend. Maybe stop for a bit in Mississippi, where she has a horse being trained.
After those jaunts on the road, it's nice to get home to her modest four-acre property in North Oklahoma City. "I'd like to say I have a 5,000-acre ranch, but I'd be lying," she says. "I don't have time to own a ranch, for Pete's sake."
She makes time for her blue heeler, Sky, and her rescue dog, Harley ("He's a squirrel hunter," she says). And she fits in as much time as she can for her second passion — fishing.
"I like to spend time with my family, but my family is diminishing, so I like to go fishing. Fishing is my hobby," she says. "We go fishing her in Oklahoma and in Orange Beach, Alabama; and Florida. We've been to Alaska, too."
But back to that first passion, the hat business. "Honestly, I think that my attitude and my personality and my customer service is how I built this business," Shorty says. "I believe in being honest and loyal. I don't believe in being rude to people, and we're known for our customer service. But it's also because I have a good team. I have good people, good customers, and a good life."
Front Row: Clara Tucker (niece), Bonnie Koger, Vonda McGavran, Shorty Koger, Bobbie Gough, Ellen & Darrell Gough. Back Row: Braydon Tucker, Ivan Koger, Jeff and Cash Tucker / Picture taken at the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Hall of Fame Induction
The tragedy of losing her sister to cancer motivated Shorty Koger to found Rein in Cancer.
Life hasn't been all hats, horses, and happy times for Shorty. In 2004, Shorty's sister Shirley was diagnosed with cancer, a year after Shorty and Bobbie became friends in 2003. Bobbie had just started working part time for Shorty when the dire news of cancer entered Shorty's life.
"My sister was diagnosed in 2003 with cancer and then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004," Shorty says. "My breast cancer was treated, but Shirley let hers go because she didn't have insurance, and she didn't want to lose her 500 acres of land in Fairfax. She was so scared she'd lose her land if she went and started getting treatments because it was so expensive."
While her sister suffered from brain cancer, doctors caught Shorty's breast cancer early enough to remove it with a mastectomy.
Shirley didn't survive. The fact that she didn't go for medical treatment because she couldn't afford it angered Shorty so much that she wanted to do something for other people in her sister's position.
"My sister died because she didn't have insurance, and I wanted to doo something to raise money to give to people that couldn't afford insurance," Shorty says. "So I started selling this special pink hat that I designed and these cute little cancer ribbons that look like a cowgirl with a hat and boots."
In the first three years, Shorty raised $13,000, but she didn't know what to do with the funds. A customer who worked for a cancer center in Oklahoma City helped her out. In January 2012, Shorty created Rein in Cancer to provide direct financial assistance to cancer patients in the performance-horse community. Previously called the Shirley Bowman Nutrition Center at The University of Oklahoma's Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City, the nonprofit was created by co-founders Koger, Tracie Anderson, and Cheryl (Magoteaux) Cody.
Since shifting to Rein in Cancer, the organization has raised nearly $2 million for patients from the American Quarter Horse Association, the National Reining Horse Association, the National Reined Cow Horse Association, and the National Cutting Horse Association in the United States and Canada. "All the horse people have been tremendous in helping me with all that, and I'm so blessed that I'm allowed to do this," Shorty says. "But without God in my life, I wouldn't be where I'm at. We're blessed to have been able to help so many people."
Shorty and her siblings. (from left): Shorty, Vonda, Shirley, Bonnie, and Ivan.
For more information about Rein in Cancer, visit reinincancer.com.