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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

America's Cowboy Hat Had Beginnings In Waynesville

Dallas Bogan on 22 July 2004
Dallas Bogan, Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie Maryland:Heritage Press, 1979) page 10
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

Waynesville has been involved in many historic occasions, but one such milestone seems to stick out more than any other.
America's favorite western hat, the Stetson hat, had its beginnings in this small town. Worn by such famous cowboys as John Wayne, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, and the Lone Ranger, this "Boss of the Plains" found worldwide attention. John Batterson Stetson was born on May 5, 1830, in Orange, New Jersey. He was the son of Stephen Stetson, who was a hatter and a wise businessman. Stephen retired at the age of 50 with a bank account of $50,000.
Young John learned the hatter's trade from his father. Through bad investments, his father's funds were lost and John never received any financial gains.
John's health seemed to erode due to his diagnosis of tuberculosis. A prescription to move west where the air was dry and warm was the prognosis issued by his doctor.
His first stop was at Waynesville where he set up residence in his sister Louise Stetson Larrick's dwelling on South Main Street.
It was at this time that John made a decision to move to the area of St. Joseph, Missouri, where eventually he found work in a brickyard. Through hard work and perseverance, John was promoted to manager, which eventually led him to buy a piece of the business.
Two years later, the Missouri River overflowed and a half-million un-baked bricks were washed away, wiping Stetson out. He tried enlisting in the Civil War, but because of his health he was rejected. Later, with his health improved somewhat; he joined an array of prospectors who were hiking more than 700 miles to the "Pikes Peak or Bust" gold rush.
Somewhere in the area of Denver, Stetson started experimenting with possibly the hat that "Won the West." His first experiment was: "he made a bow, using a leather thong and a tree bench. With it, he agitated clumps of shaved fur and kept them floating in the air. Slowly, he blew mouthfuls of water on the fur, which then matted and fell." The thin fur sheets were then boiled and the procedure was repeated. With this process Stetson formed a hat with a high crown and broad rim to protect him from the rain.
Stetson's first wide-brimmed hats were made fun of, but when a drifter came into camp and handed over a $5 bill for the first "Stetson," the world famous hat was on its way.
With John's health totally restored, and his bad luck of prospecting behind him, he sometime later returned to Waynesville to again reside with his sister, Louise. It was at this time he conjured up the idea of starting a one-manned hat factory. His sites were set on Philadelphia. His sister loaned him $60 for his upcoming venture and in 1865 he was on his way.
The Philadelphians weren't exactly overwhelmed with the design of the cowboy hats. With a market that was practically non-existent in the eastern city, Stetson turned his attention to the southwestern portion of the United States.
"The Boss of the Plains" hat caught on with the cattle industry's personnel. Borrowing to the total extent of his credit, he made enough hats to supply the top clothing and hat stores in the Southwest. The rest is history.
The original three styles and prices were: rabbit, $5; beaver and rabbit combined, $10; and pure beaver, $30.
In 1970, the business almost folded. Two decades of falling sales in the hat industry had put the company into a great financial bind.
A small family-owned business firm, the Stevens Hat Company, located in St. Joseph, Missouri, acquired the ailing Stetson Company, machinery, label and all. (It was in this city that John B. Stetson on his way west, had earlier located and made his first fortune.)
Hat sales immediately took off after this acquired move. There are now virtually more than 100 other styles of Stetson hats ranging at different prices. Among other dignitaries wearing the Stetson cowboy hat were: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson; and among the television stars were Dennis Weaver, James Coburn and Burt Reynolds, to name a few. General Custer wore one into his last battle, the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.
The Stetson House is still in existence on South Main Street in Waynesville. It is presently used as an antique store. John B. Stetson died in 1906. At this time there were 3,500 workers producing 2 million cowboy hats a year. The "Hat that won the West" is a tribute to a never-ending desire to fulfill a dream.

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