John B. Stetson, maker of, among other things, the iconic ten gallon cowboy hat known as “The Boss of the Plains”, is credited as the ‘inventor’ more or less of the American West’s dearest emblem, the cowboy hat. He was born in Orange, New Jersey.
In 1865, in his mid-thirties, Stetson set up his first hat repair shop in Philadelphia. More an east coast industrialist than Texan, as many might think, Stetson, was, first and foremost, an impeccable hatter, who respected the trade that was his father’s and left school early to learn hat making skills. Furthermore, he was a keen businessman, and, importantly, a generous, if progressive, employer.
It is no wonder that Stetson’s hat business in Philadelphia became the nation’s largest and best known hat manufacturing company in the country by the turn of the century. Stetson died in 1910 just as the company was expanding admirably. By 1915, his son, G. Henry Stetson would be running a company of 5,400 employees who were producing 3.3 million hats, while filling orders to outfit the militaries of foreign countries — albeit American allies — including Canada and Great Britain.
THE TEXAS CONNECTION & COWBOY JOE
Ninety years after the opening of the John B. Stetson Company, a boy was born in Cairo, Egypt. Within four years, the child, named Yehya, would be living in a brick rambler in Bethesda, Maryland. In no time, his Arabic was replaced by the exclamations of an American toddler. (Yippee! Yeehaw!). He went by the name of “Cowboy Joe.”
When school started in the Washington, D.C. suburb, his pre-school teacher asked his family for a more ‘common’ name than Yehya (pronounced YAH-yuh), so as to spare the child unimaginable anguish at the hands of his mindlessly cruel and impudent classmates. Happily, he became Joe.
A future cinephile and something of a television savant, Joe held American Western heroes to a high standard — think Rowdy Yates and Lucas McCain. It was their way of life, their capacity for few words, the fearlessness, the suffering — and their inimitable style that he admired and, in life, would emulate* to various degrees. The American roots music, the motorcycles, the Ford F150, even the banjo he could never master — all were extensions of his love for the frontiersmen, and, perhaps, a show of thanks for giving him his unfussy name.
But for all of that, he never had a proper cowboy hat until a birthday last month. It was then in early December 2020, in a year that offered little in the way of good news and auspicious events, that an ample black and white box arrived from Garland, Texas. In it was the Stetson Stratoliner Fedora in walnut, size 6 7/8”. Cowboy Joe was 65.
[Part Two-Coming Soon]