In 2001, Bob Jacquart was drinking his morning coffee at a restaurant in Ironwood, Mich. (pop. 6,293), when he heard that the Kromer Cap Co., after more than a century, had stopped producing its classic winter hat.
Upon hearing the news, some restaurant patrons decided to buy the last of the remaining hats at nearby stores. Jacquart, however, decided to buy the company.
“I knew I had to do something to keep that hat alive,” says Jacquart, 54, who owns a sewing company in his hometown of Ironwood. “The Stormy Kromer cap is part of our history.
“I called the company that day,” he says. “I bought what would become Stormy Kromer Mercantile two months later.”
The iconic, short-brimmed, ear-flapped hat long has been standard headwear in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where January temperatures average in the teens and annual snowfall nears 200 inches.
In 1903, Wisconsin locomotive engineer George “Stormy” Kromer, a former semi-pro baseball player, asked his wife, Ida, to modify one of his baseball hats for protection against the bitter winds on his wintertime railroad runs. Ida created an all-wool cap with a short brim and an insulated flap that could be pulled down over the ears. The cap was a hit with Kromer’s co-workers, and it gained popularity as railroad crews traveled across the Midwest. The Kromers made and sold the hats out of their home until 1919, when they opened a cap manufacturing plant in Milwaukee.
Richard Grossman bought the company in 1965, and reluctantly discontinued production of the winter cap in 2001 to concentrate on more profitable products. “We were so glad to have someone like Bob to keep the Stormy Kromer going,” Grossman says. “He understood how important it was.”
Today, a dozen of Jacquart’s employees create each Kromer from the original 13-piece pattern designed by George and Ida more than a century ago. The caps, which cost from $27 to $39, come in a dozen colors and sizes ranging from infant to a custom-made 16-and-1/4-inch hat for Wildcat Willy, the mascot for nearby Northern Michigan University.
Stormy Kromer Mercantile, which produced 6,000 hats in 2002, manufactured 75,000 hats—and added jobs—last year.
“It means a lot to me to make a difference in this community,” Jacquart says. “My great-grandfather was a wheelwright here. Both of my grandfathers were grocers here. My dad and my uncles ran businesses here.”
Though he knew the hat’s history, Jacquart didn’t realize how much the Kromer cap meant to people until he began hearing their sentimental stories.
“I was 7 when my dad bought me my first Kromer, and I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Ted Erspamer, now 75. “It’s the perfect hat. In the 1950s, we wore them as part of our uniform on the police department. We wore our badges right on the front of our Kromers.”
Ironwood teacher Dave Kangas wore his old red Kromer on every fishing trip for as long as anyone could remember. So when Kangas died in 1983, his friends and family traveled by boat to the middle of Lake Superior, placed a rock inside the hat and dropped it overboard near his favorite island.
“David loved wearing his Kromers,” says his widow, Nancy Kangas. “He wore his good black Kromer to school and church and special events, and he wore his red one in the outdoors. The tribute was very moving for me—tears still come when I tell people about it.”
Jacquart has his own fond Kromer story. “We only have two existing photographs of my late grandfather, Lopez,” Jacquart says, “and in both of them he’s wearing a Stormy Kromer. So I know he’d be glad we’re keeping this tradition alive.”