The Texas Hatters

Odd Jobs, People
on March 11, 2001

Hats made in a little third-generation business in Buda, Texas, have adorned the heads of movie stars, musicians, and five U.S. presidents.

My father always said a Texas hat should remind you of the people who settled Texas, Joella Grammage-Torres says. They had the durability and strength of the mesquite, the endurance and stamina of the longhorn. A hat is a Texans crown and glory.

The 35-year-old hatmaker and her husband, David Torres, operate Texas Hatters in Buda (pop. 1,800), carrying on the business her grandfather, Marvin Grammage, started in his garage in 1926.

She learned to make the Panama straw and felt hats from her father, Manny Grammage, whose father taught him the craft.

Photos of famous clients, many autographed, compete for space with displays of traditional cowboy hats, fedoras, and derbies that sell for $200 to $400 each. And theres the creation of Manny Grammage, a hat called the half-breed, which combines an open-weave straw top, good for air circulation, with a wide, felt brim for sun protection.

Movie stars Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, musicians Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr., and sports announcer Howard Cosell all have worn hats from Texas Hatters.

Joellas grandfather made the first presidential topper when Lyndon Johnson, a Texas native, ordered one of his trademark light tan silverbelly hats.

Manny Grammage, who died in 1995, took over the store in 1971 and made his first presidential hat 10 years later when the state of Texas ordered a cowboy-style for Ronald Reagan. Every U.S. president since Reagan has owned at least one Texas Hatters hat. Reagan has three.

After Time ran a photo of Reagan wearing his hat, Manny Grammage made specials for Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush.

Manny made Reagans third hat when he heard the president had a spot of cancerous tissue removed from his nose.

He sent a note along with the hat that said, If youd worn one of my hats, you wouldnt have to have those nasty things cut off your nose! Joella says. Reagan responded with a gracious note thanking Daddy for his concern.

Bill Clinton got a hat from the shop while governor of Arkansas as a gift during a governors conference in Texas.

George W. Bush admired a friends hat several years ago while governor of Texas and ordered a silverbelly felt model with a businessmans brimslightly narrower than a cowboy-hat brim.

Regular Texans buy the hats, too. Joey Sota, who has six, says hes addicted to them. Each one reflects a different part of my personalitylike I wear my black-and-white half-breed if I dont know whether Im in a good or bad mood!

Joella says her Dad didnt want to teach her his trade at first.

Its hard work, Joella says. At first, Daddy wasnt going to teach me the business because he thought it was too physically demanding for a girl. It takes a lot of upper-body strength.

She starts with a blank, unformed hat and makes about 50 hats a week. The first step is blocking the crown, then ironing, sanding, stitching, blocking the brim, trimming, and creasing.

Joella can handle all the equipmenteven the iron, which weighs upwards of 12 poundsbut her husband does most of the heavy work. She specializes in showing all the possibilities and helping customers select a hat that works well and looks good.

Norma Gammage, Joellas mother, says there are only about 40 custom hatters left in the United States and fears the craft is dying out.

A lot of folks who call themselves custom hatters just crease ready-made hats. As far as people who block, flange, stitch, creasethere just arent that many left. Young people just dont want to go into it anymore. Its too time-consuming, she says.

But for Joella and David, its a family tradition.

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