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Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Masters of America's Best Hats

During the early 1980’s I had the privilege and pleasure to meet a remarkable man name Marvin Gammage, Jr. His friends knew him as Manny. He had already built a reputation for hand crafting quality head wear. Celebrities, Politicians, Bankers, Investors alike all knew if they were looking for a new Hat, Manny was the man to see. Manny was a master milliner who owned Texas Hatters located in Buda, Texas on Interstate Highway 35 just a few miles south of the capitol city Austin, Texas.

When I met Manny, it was only because his son Glenn who everyone knew as Tex had enlisted in the United States Navy. Chief Petty Officer Jim Stanley was his Navy Recruiter and I was assigned under Jim as a U.S. Navy Canvassing Recruiter working Jack C. Hayes High School where Tex graduated. I had only been in the Navy myself for five years and had reenlisted for four more years to serve them in Austin, Texas. What could be better than that, since being a Cowboy was in my blood and having my feet on land felt great. Besides, I was only an hour drive home to visit my mom and dad, then. I remember I had to take Tex’s    baby sister to the shop that was about ten miles south of our office.

As I entered the shop, it was surely unique with Texas deco. Hat’s hanging everywhere, pictures of famous people hung autographed on the wall and old wooden hat tools laid on the work tables towards the back. Manny was wearing a short sleeve white Barong shirt, as I had seen men wear as formal wear on the islands of the south Pacific. He also was wearing a hat that I had never seen before. It was a straw crown hat with a felt brim. Manny called it the half breed which he proudly let me know he had designed. I browsed his store admiring the fine work as people came in picking up there custom orders, the phone ringing and labors hand sanding brims, cutting material or stitching sweat bands into head gear. Manny was proud of his son Tex who had enlisted into the Navy. Manny had also served a tour in the armed forces as a former Green Beret.
Tex was assigned into a highly classified field with Naval Communication where they listen in to things from overseas, break codes, translate messages and monitor events worldwide. He would always drop by the recruiting office when he came home on leave and always bringing his bigger than life personality. Tex was in some ways like his dad always sharing a big Texas size smile. I would see him on leave from the Navy about once a year. Each time he was adding another stripe and moving up in the ranks of an enlisted man. Manny never could be more proud than his son coming home sharing stories of his adventures, places of assignment and those things which he was free to talk about. However, I would later move from Austin, Texas to Washington for a few years before heading to South America with the Naval Special Boat Units. I visited the shop in the early 90’s. Not much had change in the store except a few new faces I didn’t recognize and new pictures of famous people that Manny had made a hat for.

However, to understand how Manny got his start in the art of hand-crafting hats and becoming a master hatter, perhaps one would have to start where it began. Manny learned everything he knew from his dad, Marvin Gammage, Sr. His dad at age 13 dropped out of school and went to work in a hat shop in Houston, Texas. This was due to Marvin Senior’s dad loosing an arm in a horrific accident. Marvin was so reliable for the company; they took him on as an apprentice. Eventually, Marvin Sr. would master the business but moved into another career field.

Despite his eighth grade education, he was a mathematical genius, which led him to his other career in the chemical industry. He worked as a chemical engineer’s apprentice position known as a Stillman. This career moved him and family several times. However, Marvin Sr would make hats from his garage. Each time, Marvin would also move his hat shop that he operated on his spare time until he started the Austin location. Each time they moved, the hat shop name changed too, operating under names as Houston Hatters, Pasadena Hatters, Abilene Hatters, Top Hatters and Marvin E. Gammage Hatters.

Manny had finished 8 years in the military service and moved to Waco with his wife and kids selling Insurance before joining up again with his Dads hat business. It was in 1965 that Marvin Sr. finally settled on Texas Hatters after his son, Manny, made the statement, “You’re never gonna move outside of Texas Dad. So, why don’t you just call it Texas Hatters and you’ll never have to change it again.” That name stuck and over the years, the business became well established with Manny assisting his dad in every aspect of the business. He even tried to sell his dad on the custom hat called the half – breed which he wore the day I met Manny. However, his dad would never think of it. No one would dare mix a straw hat with a felt back then. Nevertheless, Marvin Sr would eventually retire and Manny would purchase his interest of the business. Manny was innovative and the business continue to grow.

Manny himself was becoming a legend in the hat business. He would be written about in the Austin American Stateman, The Texas Monthly and hit big with the November 1974 Playboy magazine featuring him in an article about the Nations Best Hat maker.   Manny was already fitting celebrity figures like Burt Reynolds. Manny continue making hats for the utmost famous as President Ronald Reagan, (shown right with Manny) Governor Ann Richards, Danny Glover, Robert Rodriguez, Willie Nelson and many others. Before Steve Ray Vaughn became so famous, he used to play guitar for tips at the shoeshine stand in Manny's Austin store. In fact, that's how he bought his first signature SRV hat, wrote free lance writer, Jane Sumner. Steve continue to buy his hats from Texas Hatters. He even designed the hats for several movie sets; Honeysuckle Rose, Spy Kids 2 & 3, All the Pretty Horses, Hope Floats, Rough Riders and the famous “Lonesome Dove.”
Manny would argue with Bill Wittliff about the style the studio wanted for Robert Duvall to wear. Bill Wittliff was acutely poised to adapt the epigraph for the film version of Lonesome Dove because he was the founder of the Encino Press, which published not only McMurtry's work, but also that of J. Frank Dobie. Manny wanted something period correct while Bill wanted something different. They finally left it up for Robert to choose a hat from three styles. Robert Duvall selected the one which Manny had designed for him over the studio selections. This hat today known as the “Gus” did help make the character, and the “original” was made by Texas Hatters. Mr. Duvall would be so pleased, like the many other celebrities, signed a picture of him wearing the renown hat thanking Manny. The picture hangs in their store today. “I’ve personally seen several Hat companies claim fame to making the famous “Gus” hat, but Robert Duvall and Texas Hatter’s know who made the original,” states Joella Gammage Torres who is Manny’s daughter and the little girl once needing a ride back from a recruiting station to the store nearly thirty years ago.

Manny’s business had grown with his wife Norma working the admin-istrative side taking care of books. Manny took on a young man named David Torres as an apprentice just as he once was and his daddy before him. David would learn every detail to becoming a skillful hat maker. To understand the different quality felt often called Beaver as hats of quality are made using matted beaver hairs. Other quality blends include rabbit hair mixed at different levels. Manny’s daughter Joella would also work in the shop as she had been abandon by her first husband leaving her to  care for their 8 month old son. During those years a love would slowly built
between Joella and the apprentice David Torres. They eventually married.     (David Torres above blocking hat)

Manny became very ill in the mid 90’s where the Navy allowed Tex to temporary transfer to San Antonio, Texas so he could be close to home assisting his dad with his illness. Manny would not hear of his son leaving the Navy and strongly desires he stay for retirement. Tex was a Chief Petty Officer with about 14 years of service behind him. To ensure Tex would not leave the service, he refused to allow him to inherited the business giving control to his wife and daughter Joella. Manny died that December 30, 1995 from Cancer.

Today, Texas Hatters continues to be in full swing making the Nations finest hats. Some even special order from overseas. Mom is still my business partner and still comes in half days, Tuesday through Saturday. David is my marriage 'partner' and the store manager. He was Daddy's apprentice for about 8 years before he passed. Dad planned everything well,” stated Joella. She also raised her son Joel Aaron Gammage in the shop working for daddy. Joel is the marketing wiz who takes his best PRCA custom hats out to clubs promoting the legacy of Texas Hatters. Thanks to Joel, photo left, he has many videos can be found on YouTube of Manny hard at work.

In 2006, “Texas Hatters” moved from the Buda location to its current home sight located in Lockhart, Texas. Traffic on the Austin south side and suburban area of Buda became heavily congested. Lockhart offered a more relaxing environment with its quiet community to still serve center Texas. Austin is less than a half hour drive away.

I asked Joella who was her favorite of all the famous people she had the privilege to assist. She quoted, “Of those who have now past on, Steve Ray Vaughan. He was like family as well; I had a huge crush on him even before I even listen to his music.” She modestly said “they are all very special. I love them all.” We then shared a laugh together concerning former Governor Ann Richards in an article I had early posted that Joella read; “She Wears Texas Size Big Hair” where the hat had to fit the hair-do that Texas Hatters carefully made. Then after a long pause, she said, “Donnie Van Zant. He actually calls and we talk often. There is a picture of David, Donnie, his brother Johnny and me on the famous people page. Plus I have known him since I was about 13 so he’s like family too”.
I will miss Manny as he is a legend. However, the family legacy is in its forth generation. You don't have to be famous to owe one of the hats. You just need to desire America's Best Hats. It's beyond just quality. The "Texas Hatters" family will be hosting their 4th year at the Lockhart location on October 16th, 2010. You will want to schedule a trip to help celebrate as they will have live music and Barbecue…Lockhart is also known as the BBQ Capitol of the World, and now home to Texas Hatters. I surely need to put this on my calendar. You can reach Texas Hatters at or visit at Texas Hatters, 911 S. Commerce St., Lockhart, TX 78644 (512)-398-4287

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