- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Joella Gammage Torres remembers the glory days. The “Urban Cowboy” days.
Back after her family’s business, Texas Hatters, moved from Houston to rented shop spaces on 19th Street, 11th Street and, very briefly, 12th Street, then to its high-profile location on South Lamar Boulevard.
“Manny said that renting was for suckers,” Joella recalls about her father, Manny Gammage. “So he bought a house at 1705 South Lamar Blvd. It was too small, so two years later, he purchased 2058 South Lamar Blvd., right at West Oltorf Street across from the Martinez Brothers Taxidermy. That was our heyday. ‘Urban Cowboy’ and Lone Star Beer cross-promotions kept Mom and Dad so busy, my sister and brother practically raised me for three or four years.”
When the fast-moving traffic on South Lamar got too busy and too dangerous, the store moved to Buda near exit 220 off Interstate 35 in 1980. Now, as the family business turns 90, it thrives just off U.S. 183 in Lockhart.
During the shop’s peak years, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the likes of Willie Nelson, the “Lonesome Dove” cast and British royalty became loyal customers. Other showbiz clients included Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Neil Young, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Waylon Jennings, Farrah Fawcett and Kris Kristofferson.
An expert told Joella at a big convention that most businesses rarely survive into the third generation, much less the fourth.
“It’s been 22 years since Dad passed,” she says. “And we’re still going strong.”
Now, the earliest memory that Joella can summon of Texas Hatters involves dust.
“I was brought into the shop because day care was expensive and my family was new to Austin,” says the president of Texas Hatters, the only person who can do everything under the roof at the Lockhart shop. “If I said I was bored, I was given a task to do, usually dusting things. Everything gets dusty in the hat-making process. I’d take a little brush and clean all the sewing equipment, for instance.”
In those days, she was not allowed near the shop’s heavier equipment, but when she got a little older, her parents let her sweep up. Her first official job was to stuff brochures.
“The brochure was a poster. I’d fold it twice, then put the order form and the price list and put all in the envelope,” says Joella, 51, whose husband, David Torres, and son, Joel Gammage, are part of the shop’s ongoing family team. “I graduated to making the labels and got to use a typewriter for that. We kept card files of the addresses. Then on to other things, like lacing the hat bands — snake skin or alligator or whatever — with a hand-stitched edge. I was paid $5 a band. They sold for $35 back then.”
By age 14, she began learning to make hats from her father, Manny Gammage, who in his time “topped” movie stars, rock musicians and visiting royalty, along with people from the regular working and tourist trades. His daughter’s big break on the hat iron came when Gammage’s apprentices arrived late habitually on the morning after payday.
Gammage tested his daughter first.
“He said, ‘If you lift this iron and put it on the ironing board and put it back, I will show you,’” she recalls. “The iron weighs about 12 to 15 pounds. By the end of the day, it feels like about 50 pounds. But I had been sneaking into my brother’s weights and lifting them. And I arm-wrestled boys in elementary and junior high before they got stronger than me.”
After passing the test, she learned how to iron hat brims. Eventually she could make whole hats. Still, she had to vacate the workroom when her grandfather and shop founder, Marvin Gammage Sr., came in from Marble Falls, which he did once a week.
You see, regular customers wanted the famed Gammages, father or son, to make their hats personally. This expectation continued even after her grandfather and father died.
Joella: “There are still customers who won’t let me touch their hats because they believe a hatter has to be a man.”
On Oct. 14, Texas Hatters will throw a fiesta on its deep lot in Lockhart to commemorate its 90 of years in business in, sequentially, Houston, Austin, Buda and now Lockhart.
Marvin Gammage Sr. — Joella’s grandfather — delivered clothes in a horse and buggy for his father’s laundry business in Hempstead northwest of Houston.
“He quit school and started working full-time when his father was shot by a tenant and his arm was amputated,” Joella says. “The shooting happened on the courthouse steps in Hempstead, if I recall correctly.”
A 1926 Houston city directory lists Marvin Gammage as a “chauffeur,” perhaps another term for deliveryman, for Shudde’s Southern Hat Company, founded in 1907. He also served as a hatter’s apprentice.
“He’d say, ‘Mr. Ben Shudde always did it that way,’” Joella says. “Pappy highly respected him because he was a perfectionist. That made my grandfather a perfectionist.”
By 1927, Marvin Gammage, the family surmises, was a full-time hatter, and so the upcoming 90th anniversary dates from that year.
Joella’s grandmother, Leonora Alice Arnold Gammage, grew up in Harris County, where her father owned a bakery and dairy farm. She attended college in San Marcos, where she studied the millinery arts and business.
“They met in Sunday school,” Joella says. “He told the teacher that he was going to marry that girl. They were married 59 years, until his death in 1991.”
At the family shop, Leonora made women’s hats and worked the counter. She also did all the sewing on the men’s hats.
“Except for using the binding machine for putting ribbons on the edge of the brims,” Joella says. “Pappy was the only one to use that machine for long time.”
In the next generation, Joella’s mother, Norma Lynne Jenkins Gammage, grew up in the Houston area, the daughter of a music teacher, basketball coach and Hughes Tools employee who had married a cotton farmer’s daughter, also a musician.
Her father, Marvin Emanuel “Manny” Gammage Jr., grew up in Houston and Abilene. He held several jobs while young, and apprenticed as a hatter at age 13. As a young adult, he worked as a pipe fitter, then auto mechanic and insurance salesman, among other jobs, usually more than one of them at a time. He also served in the Air Force and was a Green Beret during the Vietnam War. He sold hats wherever he sold insurance policies.
He purchased Texas Hatters from his father in 1971.
“My parents met at a party that Manny had crashed for Norma’s best friend,” Joella says. “It was love at first sight. Both underaged, they married two months and two days later. They were married 39 years, until his death in 1995.”
Marvin had moved his business from Houston to Austin in 1965.
Joella: “He called Dad — we were living in Waco, where Dad had a Texaco service station — and said, ‘Son, I need your help, we’re moving to Austin.’”
Joella’s brother, Marvin Glenn “Tex” Gammage, a military instructor who retired from the Navy after 24, and his wife, Mary, along with her sister Phyllis Lynne Gammage, a nurse and case manager, still have a hand in the shop.
“They’ve helped out in tough times,” Joella says. “When we couldn’t afford to hire regular help, and as they could afford the time.”
More than one anecdote relates how the shop became a social milieu for family members.
“My grandfather was a total perfectionist, and my dad was perhaps a little less so, but he had my grandmother’s gift for gab,” Joella says. “He could talk to anybody. Of course, he had to have a cigarette. That was his armor even if he wasn’t smoking it. He could talk to people for hours.”
Manny Gammage died of cancer in 1995. Norma Gammage died in 2016. Meanwhile, their daughter learned everything she could about the trade.
“When Dad was in the hospital, I made several hats from start to finish,” Joella says. “It was such a stressful time. David was out, Dad was too ill, Mom wanted to spend every moment by his side, Joel was too young and stayed with Mom. I worked all day and into the night to get special orders out. The night before he passed, I thanked Dad for all he taught me. Two days before Mom passed, I was working on a reverse binding, which I’d never done, and I called for advice. She talked me through the process, step by step. When I got home, I told her that the instructions worked. … Less than a day later, Mom passed in her sleep.”
David A. Torres, 47, was born in San Marcos and grew up in Kyle. Thirty years ago, he started working for Manny Gammage as part of a Hays High School after-school program. The first day, Manny introduced David to Joella and her sister, Phyllis.
“These are my two daughters,” he said. “They’re a little bossy, but I’m the boss.”
Manny encouraged his future son-in-law in his business and social life. David married Joella 19 years ago.
“We found a ticket for my first hat,” David says. “It was 30 years ago come September. My wife has always done payroll, trimming, hat-making, leather work and sales. We keep all the hat tickets from 1970 on.”
Joella has found order tickets for President Ronald Reagan, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, along with young Princes William and Harry. Also Caroline Kennedy.
“The Secret Service patted down Manny when Caroline Kennedy came,” David says with a smile.
He has seen hat styles come and go.
“These days, everybody’s looking for a ‘Ronnie Van Zant,’” he says. “We’ve done all the hats for Lynyrd Skynyrd. There’s the ‘Statesman’ model, which looks like what LBJ wore, conservative and dressy. The ‘Gus’ that we did for ‘Lonesome Dove’ is still popular. Now we have the latest ‘Eli’ that Pierce Brosnan wears in ‘The Son.’”
Torres says that folks find out about Texas Hatters from social media and the internet, but also by word of mouth.
“Some remember their dads or grandfathers got their hats from Manny,” he says. “Now they are doing well in life, and they feel like rewarding themselves with a good hat.”
The standard hats made from rabbit or beaver range from $400 to $600 for the smaller, dress-weight items, and the Western-weight ones with thicker felt go for $500 to $700.
“They are meant to last a lifetime,” Torres says. “The oldest I had a hat come back to us was one that my father-in-law’s father made. Some from younger generations have a father’s hat resized or rebuilt. We put a special label in them: ‘Passed from Henry Smith to Henry Smith Jr. to Henry Smith III.’”
Joel Gammage, his wife’s son from a short-lived first marriage, lives in the Pacific Northwest but remains a key, although remote, part of the Texas Hatters team. Their daughters, Liliana and Della, work part time, sewing and trimming, part of the shop’s fourth generation.
More than two decades as a hatter — including for numerous TV shows and movies — have made Torres a close observer of the historical depiction of hats.
“Really, if we are watching a movie, I always look at it for certain colors,” he says. “Some dyes weren’t around back then. They used natural dyes. I guess it depends on the wardrobe budget. If they want accuracy, they come to us. A certain style defined a person’s class in society. For instance, wide-brim hats were for people who worked in the elements; the ones with smaller brims were usually for people who worked indoors, working bending over.”
Many of the hat bands are made of horsehair and beads. Others are fashioned from rattlesnake, copperhead or coral snake skins.
“We had to buy an upright freezer to keep them all,” Torres laughs. “Farmers would say: ‘I killed a snake. You want it?’ I gotta ask them: dead or alive now? They say: ‘How do you want it?’ I have to have them dead without the head.”
While many customers have followed them from Austin, they have developed a healthy local trade.
“There’s a cow auction every Thursday down the road,” Torres says. “All the ranchers can drop off the cattle, park their trailers, get their hats shaped, then go get barbecue. In the city, the younger generations usually want new video games or shoes, but out here, they want a hat and boots. The youngest came in at 14 after selling his cattle and made regular payments on his hat.”
As Torres tells this story, a young customer steps into the shop. In polite tones, he asks Torres to shape the crown of his hat.
“My stepdad is regular customer,” says Morgan Barclay, who recently moved here from Georgia. “Yessir, he said they did good work in more of a traditional style. I just like the way it looks.”
While he waits for his hat, two young men with little English strike up a conversation with Barclay, who has little Spanish. Yet they are able to act out a dialogue, including an exchange on different styles of bull riding.
“A hat is a conversation starter,” Torres says. “I always worked in the back, but it helped Manny if I could come up front and speak Spanish. I told him I didn’t speak it at home. He said, BS, come over here. I basically learned Spanish in the store. The older men would still talk to Manny, to give respect, but talk through me.”
Like Joella, her husband emphasizes how crucial it is to some men, especially, that only certain people handle their hats.
Smiling, Torres recites an old adage, not unlike the ones that appear on signs around the trading-post-like shop, about being a man.
“Don’t lend out your truck, don’t lend out your wife, and most of all, you don’t lend out your hat,” he says. “A hat is the symbol of a man.”
Joel Aaron Gammage, 30, was born in Austin at the Bergstrom Air Force Base hospital. He attended Hays High School. Shy back then and a book lover, he took grief for his Western wear and the name of the family business.
“On the school bus, on the way to the hat shop, all dressed up in cowboy gear, boots and hat on, the kids on the school bus chanted that it was ‘Texas Haters,’ picking on me,” he recalls. “But as the bus started pulling in one day, there was the Oldies 103 (radio) bus, and grandfather standing out front, and a man snapping photos. Grandfather grabs me, throws me up on his shoulders, and says, ‘Big or small, we top ’em all!’ I was dumbfounded. The photo became a kinda famous brochure and advertisement. That was the first moment I felt what it was like to be a ‘hatter’ and not a ‘hater.’”
One of his teachers took Manny’s grandson aside and showed him three books that featured his famed grandfather.
“I was already Poppa’s unofficial helper from the age of three,” he says. “Gofer, go for this, go for that. I learned how to make hatboxes, and got quarters from David. I was rolling it. … I was the fastest hatbox-maker that ever lived.”
Before he knew it, Joel was spending all his time at Texas Hatters, where his grandfather doted on him. He helped Ruffin Hill, who rented a shop next door called Handwovens by Ruffin, weave wool and silk headbands, guitar straps and camera straps.
“She’d pay me in turquoise and amethyst,” he says. “I still have a huge rock collection.”
He started washing hats at 13.
“Water at first, solvent after that,” he says. “If it’s in there, the solvent takes it out. Cleaned blood out of a hat, dog saliva, all kinds of nastiness. One customer cheated on his wife, and she covered his hat in profanity in bright red lipstick.”
Joel’s first big foray away from the shop, at the Broken Spoke dance hall on South Lamar Boulevard, opened a whole new world for him. And hats were involved.
“I was goofiest looking son of a gun you’d ever seen,” he recalls. “A goobery, big-glasses guy who wore a tall gold mink hat from a John Wayne movie. Hung out with the old cowboys right at the old check-in, watched how they stood, how they greeted the ladies.”
Luckily, his mom already had taught him how to two-step. Joel became the hit of the dance floor.
“Men would come up to me and hand me money to dance with their girlfriends,” he remembers. “Some would say: ‘Must be the hat. If I had a hat like you, will I be able to dance like you and get the women?’ Well, I traveled around with a tape measure in my back pocket. I’d tell ’em, ‘Actually, I make them.’”
Joel and his dance friends made the circuit of the Continental Club, the Broken Spoke, Trophy’s and other hot spots. Eventually, his picture appeared in the American-Statesman and the New York Times as one of the “kings of the Austin two-steppin’.” Musicians became among his best hat customers.
Which led to Joel’s next career as a promoter, first for events at Texas Hatters, then for hot rod shows and other events. Folks who knew his grandfather from his days with Lone Star Beer or Willie Nelson’s ranch or Darrell Royal’s private jam sessions started recognizing him as “Manny’s boy” or “Manny’s grandson.”
‘We’ve done seven ‘Hotrods and Hatters’ events, 15 hot rod shows total,” he says. “And 1,225 hot rods registered for the latest car show. We had 200 vendors and were permitted for 40 city blocks. The 30,000 spectators has been called largest event in Lockhart history.”
Meanwhile, his wife, Catrin Elise Bennett-Gammage, landed a job with Amazon’s headquarters, so the two now live in Seattle. But he still does the marketing for Texas Hatters, and of course he is promoting the Oct. 14 event, “90 Years of Topping the Best,” in Lockhart.
The move to Lockhart 11 years ago was due in part to construction on Interstate 35 that changed the flow of rainwater, causing it to back up in the Buda store.
“Also, with traffic delays and road changes, it was harder and harder to get to it,” David says. “Barbecue was a draw for Lockhart. Also, my mother-in-law said it reminded her of their shop at South Lamar and Oltorf.”
The main section of the big-boned house was built more than 100 years ago. It is now packed with posters, signs, photos, equipment, hatboxes, hat blocks, stuffed animals and hat paraphernalia.
“The move to Lockhart at first was very difficult,” Joella says. “People didn’t get the message that we’d moved, and there was 10-month lag from buying property to when we were allowed to open. Old Austin clients who use this road sometimes find us by accident.”
She is still recovering from the loss of her mother last year.
“I was still struggling to fill Daddy’s shoes,” Joella says. “And now I’m trying to fill Mom’s as well.”