“It’s our job not only to fit folks with a hat that looks good, but with one that says something about who they are the moment they walk in the door,” says Joel Gammage, a fourth-generation hat maker at family-owned and operated Texas Hatters in small-town Lockhart.
The Gammage’s family business took form in the 1920s when Marvin Gammage, Sr., Joel’s great-grandfather, became an apprentice hatter and opened his own operation after years of training.
From there, the centuries-old, hands-on process of constructing a hat was passed down the family line without much objection. Only once did anyone ever leave the business behind — a temporary decision made by Marvin Gammage, Jr. (a.k.a., Manny) to become an insurance salesman. Fatefully enough, the brief foray into a career outside of the family's craft resulted in the coining of the now-famous “Hi-Roller” hat — a style popularized by Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Joel laughs and explains that Marvin, Sr. had been slightly disappointed when son Manny, upon ending his military career, opted for a career in door-to-door sales rather than returning to the family business. After Manny received several awards for his esteemed salesmanship, his father sent him a congratulatory tongue-in-cheek gift: a hat paired with a note that read, “You ain’t nothing but a high-roller."
The playful note did its job, Manny eventually returned to work with his father, and the Hi-Roller name was trademarked. At the same time, Texas Hatters’ profile became more and more elevated, attracting the regular business of country music legends like Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ray Benson and Waylon Jennings.
Even now with a celebrity roster that has grown to include U.S. presidents and Formula 1 champions, the Gammages pay the same mind to hats made for the average Joe. “We will sit with a customer and talk about their hobbies, what color combinations they prefer to wear, and what they do for a living,” explains Joel. “A hat becomes an outward extension of their character.”
The current team of master hatters includes Joel himself, as well as grandmother Norma (Manny's widow), stepfather David and mother Joella. Together, they work on anywhere from 15 to 20 hats a day, using time-intensive methods that leave no detail unconsidered. The process begins with steaming and stretching over a wooden block, followed by dampening and ironing. An all-over sanding then gives the body a polished look. Next is flanging, where the same basic steps are used for the brim on a wooden form called a flange. Leather sweatbands are then cut to size and hand-sewn in, along with satin lining. Decorative trim is added, and finally, the hat is hand creased to the customer’s specification.
“Using your hands is an automatic form of quality control,” explains Joel. “Animal fur has natural imperfections. Seeing it and touching it by hand, you can fix it, versus in a factory where those imperfections are permanently stamped into the hats.”
Despite their perfect finished-products, they’re big believers in experimentation at Texas Hatters. When Manny accidentally ruined a part of two different hats he was working on as a teenager in 1951, he simply put the two remaining pieces together to create another now-famous style called the "Half-Breed": a straw crown and felt brim, a combination Manny called “the best of both worlds.”
Today, Joel, Norma, David and Joella carry on that playful spirit, encouraging their customers to try styles that excite and suit them. Joel himself often wears his hat cocked to the side, while David has a small stuffed rattlesnake affixed to the interior crown of his own for good luck. Like Manny said over 30 years ago, at Texas Hatters, they strive to be “as modern as yesterday, with tomorrow’s ideas.”
Visit Texas Hatters for a custom fitting in Lockhart, Texas at 911 S. Commerce Street or call 800 421 4287.