Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
The mountains are imperious.
The tallest, Longs Peak, rises to 14,259 feet. Travelers pass from biome to biome until, rising above the timberline, they find themselves in an honest-to-God tundra where the only plants are knee-high shrubs. Everything is coated in ice and snow, even during the summer. From that height, looking out across a horizon unimpeded by trees is a transcendent experience.
Estes Park, Colorado, rests about 7,000 feet below in a heavily forested valley full of wildlife. It's a town of approximately 6,000 people, best known for the headquarters of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ted and Susan Williams, co-owners and operators of Colorado Hats, have been making cowboy hats there for 17 years. Working alone, with no employees, they are among the few businesses still crafting cowboy hats by hand.
Some people find the husband-and-wife team by word of mouth. Others wander in off the street. The 2,200-square-foot storefront sits on a narrow walkway between the edge of a strip mall and a waist-high stone wall that protects passersby from falling into a river. A blue-and-white sign faces the entrance to the walkway. It reads: "Hats."
Despite its low profile, Colorado Hats, with annual revenue of $180,000, has developed an almost cult following. Ninety percent of business comes from outside the town, and celebrity sightings are not uncommon. Trevor Siemian, the Denver Broncos starting quarterback, came by in September. Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants, visited before a nearby family wedding. Ralph Lauren and his wife have bought hats there. "He made me feel good about what I do," says Ted Williams of his more famous apparel industry colleague.
The business is also a community fixture. There's a barber's chair that accommodates customers getting their heads measured and locals stopping in to indulge in one of Ted Williams's favorite pastimes: talking politics. Todd Jirsa, the mayor of Estes Park, often drops by. He's one of Williams's best friends: They used to coach youth baseball together. "By the time you spend just two minutes talking to Ted, you're his friend," Jirsa says. "You're his family."
But people don't come here to spot celebrities. Most don't even come for the conversation. Rather, they come to this store to buy sturdy, custom-made hats, for which some will pay thousands of dollars. In this region where people labor long hours outdoors under the sun in thin mountain air, they need hats for protection. They need hats because they are Coloradans.
From the belly of the beaver
For Ted and Susan Williams, Colorado Hats is a second life. He is 65. She is 69. Before retirement, Ted was a civil engineer, specializing in wastewater plant infrastructure. Susan was the stay-at-home mom of five daughters. The couple used to live in nearby Fort Collins, then moved to Durango on the state's southern edge. There they ran a shop called the Colorado Cowboy Company that sold hats, boots, saddles, and related paraphernalia. They worked with a milliner, a cobbler, and a saddler to stock their store.
It was in Durango that the Williamses started thinking about making hats themselves. They did research, made a few hats, and went to some trade shows. Over the next half-decade, they got better and better at it. While most people wore cowboy hats as fashion statements, the Williamses focused on products for working people: ranchers and farmers who might pass their hats down from generation to generation. "Grampa used to wear these," Williams remembers thinking about his own family and childhood. "We wore them because they kept the sun off you. That resonated with us very strongly. It gave us a mission."
In 2000 the Williamses moved back north "because the girls were starting to get out of college and get married and started making babies. And all that was going to happen up here," Ted Williams says. "We altered our plans so we could be around and be grandma and grampa." In Estes Park, they opened Colorado Hats.
The Williamses make hats from two types of fur-felt blends. The cheaper uses "grade two" beaver fur, taken from the beaver's belly, which is dense with fine, insulative fur. The pricier is 75 percent beaver and 25 percent European hare. It's a ratio chosen by the Williamses to offer more colors. Rabbit fur absorbs dye better than beaver fur does.
The average hat costs $600. But that price can rise into the thousands depending on the type of felt requested. Add-ons like silver trim--Colorado Hats recently established a partnership with a silversmith--also drive up the price.
The store stocks about 70 hats for impatient customers who want to walk out with one. But most prefer to wait the 90 days it takes for the Williamses to custom-manufacture one that is guaranteed to fit. (The price for custom and ready-made is the same.) The custom process is labor intensive: The Williamses eschew much of the usual hat-making machinery. First customers pick a felt, which determines the hat's quality and durability. They also choose a color, and a style from 174 options. The Williamses can make any kind of hat, including the kind worn by Catholic priests. But Western hats are their specialty, making up 65 to 70 percent of sales.
Next, one of the owners measures the customer's head with a computer-based system they developed themselves over five years. From that data they create a three-dimensional model. Production begins with cleaning the felt--by hand, because chemicals would break down the material's rigidity. ("We use Dawn, to be honest with you," says Ted Williams.) To shape the hats, he uses a manual process called wet blocking, which means soaking them in pH-adjusted water to make the felt pliable and avoid stretching or ripping. With a specialized sewing machine, Susan Williams puts the pieces together, matching crowns to brims to sweatbands.
The couple makes about 300 hats a year and plans to expand the ready-made offerings to grow revenue. They do not offer online sales.
The whole process is designed to ensure the hats are durable, so ranchers can use them day in and day out. The artistry is almost a by-product. "The hats are just spectacular," says Rick Mandler, who bought a black derby with purple trim from Colorado Hats while visiting from New York in August 2015. "It's a lost art," agrees Jirsa, the Estes Park mayor.
A community-first attitude
A hat store may not be a traditional gathering spot, like a diner or barber shop. But Estes Park residents come to Colorado Hats to hash over the issues of the day. "Small business owners need to be aware of--and engaged in understanding--local issues and local politics," says Jon Nicholas, president and CEO of the Estes Park Economic Development Council and another shop regular. "Ted gives voice to that."
Although the discussion is always civil, sometimes things get contentious, especially when politics is the subject. "Ted never varnishes anything," Nicholas says. "When he doesn't like something, one of his favorite phrases is, 'You can't polish a turd.' "
And Colorado Hats has stood by Estes Park through tough times. In 2009, a fire destroyed 16 stores in the mall where the business resides. Four years later, a flood shut down the entire town. Both times, Colorado Hats emerged unscathed. The Williamses raised funds for the community and made a point of leaving their "Open" sign on--even though nobody could get to their shop and it was difficult to ship items in or out.
Jirsa was so impressed by the Williamses community-first attitude that when he was elected mayor last year, he used his first government paycheck to make a Colorado Hats purchase. "Oh, no, you're not," Williams told Jirsa. "We're going to give you a hat, because the mayor needs a cowboy hat and we're going to be the ones to do it."
"Ted, you can't," Jirsa recalls saying. "I can't accept gifts like that now that I've got this position. That's not going to happen."
"Well then," Williams said, "we're going to take your money and we're going to donate it."
Jirsa received a black cowboy hat in a style now known as "The Mayor." The Crossroads Ministry of Estes Park received the money.