The lobby of the Hatco building where Stetson hats are made is a mix of a factory and industrial museum. The facility in Garland, Texas has been making these iconic hats since the 1920s, and walking into its doors feels like stepping back in time when things were crafted by hand and robots were something for the comic books. “There’s no computers down there,” says Justin Thomason, the quality control supervisor for the hat manufacturer.
Thomason fits in well at the Stetson factory. This Texan is not only responsible for monitoring the thousands of felt and straw hats created at the factory, he’s a competitive rodeo rider and ranch owner. His shoulders are broad and his hands are rough as sandpaper, but his face breaks into easy smiles. And he knows more than a thing or two about cowboy hats.
H&B: When did you get your first Stetson? People think Texans get them at birth.
JT: I had my first Stetson, gosh, I bet I was four or five. I remember it was like a Garth Brooks edition type of deal. Of course we had to have what he had. That was my first encounter with a Stetson hat.
I grew up in a little town called Paradise, Texas. Not everybody can say they grew up in Paradise. My dad, he rodeo-ed for a little bit and my grandmother owned a ranch just outside of Wichita Falls, TX. Just pretty much grew up being around the Western lifestyle. It’s just been a part of my life ever since I was little, since I was born. It’s just a part of our lifestyle. I wake up and I’m, literally every day go out the door and I put my hat on. It’s just a habit, how I live my life.
H&B: Baseball players are spooky about their gats and gear, so are rodeo riders the same way?
JT: Oh yeah. You know, there’s a superstition in rodeo, you don’t lay your hat on the bed. So I always have a certain place where I put my hat, and luckily I have never had to really worry about that. There’s definitely certain hats that you have done well in, or a pair of jeans that you’ve done well in, or something like that to where you definitely want to keep that momentum going, especially when you’re winning money.
H&B: It’s amazing to see all the hands-on labor that goes into making Stetsons. How does that affect your job?
JT: We haven’t changed our process for the whole time we’ve been in business. Stetson started in 1865. We got machines that are made in 1890 and 1892, so our process and even our machinery, the majority hasn’t changed. We definitely pride ourselves in that. We’re set to a higher standard than everybody else, just because of the Stetson name. We have to keep that integrity and that quality.
H&B: That may be true, but you guys make a ton of hats here.
In our felt hat plant, we have 130 employees. We put about 130 dozen felt hats every day. Our labor is definitely intensive: We press them, give them a nice shape, put a nice sweatband in them, put a nice liner in, and of course a nice buckle set. That always helps for the felt hats. For the straw hats we press them and then we put a nice lacquer on them to where they’re more water-resistant and we put a wire in it to where that hat keeps its structure, the shape of it. We put a nice leather band in it, but also we put a cloth band in it to where it’s more comfortable for first-time users or guys that still do compete, to where they don’t have a tight hat to where it doesn’t blow off. That material kind of sticks on their forehead and it fits a lot better.
H&B: There’s a long history of celebrities wearing Stetsons, or even launching their own lines of hats. Does that still happen?
JT: We have George Strait as a guy that wears our hats. He’s on the side of our trailer. Really I don’t think you can get a better name, especially in the country music. We have a straw line and a felt hat line just for him. They have some of the fancier bands. Some people like more of a fancy band, to where myself, I just wear just a generic black band, but not everybody likes that. For (driver) Richard Petty , we have three or four different hats that we make production-wise for him, but then of course, whenever he wants a hat, he just tells us what we wants and we make it for him.
H&B: What kind of styles does he like?
JT: Oh gosh. He has some wild stuff. I mean, we’ve done anything from pink python skin to rattlesnake heads, jawbones and stuff like that. Whatever he can think of we can definitely make for him.
H&B: Your two passions, hats and horses, seem to fit very well together.
That’s a good part about this company; there’s a lot of people that are in the managerial positions, even our general manager, who used to professionally rodeo. He understands what it takes. If you’re entered in a rodeo on Thursday afternoon, it’s okay that if you need to leave.
I still compete, still have three horses that I take care of every day. I come home after work and ride the horses. We practice at the arena. We do live the Western lifestyle to where, hey, you know what? We want to test this hat in this certain area, outside in the rain. Well, we can do that. We don’t have to pay somebody to go do a little research and development, I guess. We are our own R&D team.