February 10, 2007

Stetson

And the man behind the brand is...
John Stetson

John Stetson stood transfixed on a St. Louis hillside as the rampaging Missouri River savaged his brickyard below. Finally, as the flood waters carried off his inventory, Stetson roared, “Let ‘er go! I’m not the first man to make a fortune and lose it.” Stetson could embrace that philosophy easier than most. He had, after all, only come out to the West to die.

John Batterson Stetson was born into a family of hatters in Orange, New Jersey in 1830. The youngest of the Stetson boys, John learned the family trade as well in his father’s hat shop. But the education came at a terrible price. At the age of 21 Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a malady common to early-day hatters. Doctors gave him only a few months to live.

Young Stetson decided to spend his final days outdoors and headed to the frontier. But by the time he reached St. Louis he had regained his health.
He found work in a local brickyard and two years later Stetson owned the business - just in time to watch it wiped out by the floods.

Stetson took off for the gold fields of Colorado where he found his hatter’s skills adapted well to the trail. Tents of the time were fashioned from joined animal skins. These crude shelters were routinely compromised by the elements and quickly acquired an ungodly stench. Stetson was able to apply the ancient process of felting to produce a soft, waterproof tentcloth from the animal furs.

Turning to hats Stetson crafted a roomy, wide-brimmed chapeau for himself that shaded the withering sun of the Plains and warded off pelting rain. One day a passing rider offered Stetson a five-dollar gold piece for his hat. That one sale represented a good portion of his earnings in the Gold Rush.

In 1865 he returned to Philadelphia with $100 and set up a small one-room millinery. He busied himself repairing, trimming and making the European-looking hats of the day. At most he was able to sell one or two hats at a time.

Impatient with his progress Stetson created a daring hat based on his experiences in the American West. His “Boss of the Plains” was big with a four-inch brim and a four-inch crown. It was natural-colored and sported a leather strap for a hatband. A “Boss of the Plains” sold for an extravagant five dollars. Finer material would run you ten dollars. And, at the top of the line, pure beaver or nutria could be had for thirty dollars.

Stetson sent a sample hat to dozens of merchants throughout the Southwest with a letter asking for a minimum order of a dozen “Boss of the Plains” hats.
It was a bold move. Stetson was risking his business and his line of credit on an entirely new style.

The plan worked. The new Stetson hat soon blanketed the West. John Stetson would eventually stitch together a network of 10,000 dealers and 150 wholesalers. His one-room millinery evolved into a modern factory - fireproofed with the finest in ventilation - covering an entire Philadelphia block.

In his later years Stetson gobbled up thousands of acres of Florida real estate, including several orange groves, in the cultivation of which he took great pride.
He founded Deland, Florida as his retirement home and held a controlling interest in nearly all its industries and institutions.

He provided a million-dollar endowment for Deland Academy, which was renamed Stetson University. He took an active role in the school’s affairs, serving as president of the Board of Trustees. In 1906 John Stetson, who had been told he was going to die shortly 55 years earlier, died suddenly, in apparent good health, after a trustees’ meeting in Florida. A blood vessel had burst in his brain.

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