The Loneliest Hatmaker

In the fifth smallest county in the United States, and the smallest in Nebraska, there’s a town called Arthur, population 118. Taking Fir Street, you can walk from one end to the other in about ten minutes, passing the bank, post office, and County Treasurer. At the southern end lies the old county courthouse and jail, said to have been the smallest in the United States. At the northern end, there’s a hat shop.

James Marshall has run Marshall Custom Hats in Arthur for twenty years. He didn’t expect to. Marshall grew up in the dunes of the Nebraska Sandhills, where the local business is cattle. He started a business in Arthur, but his trade was fencing. An interruption came when Marshall was a couple of hours west, in a town called Mitchell, sorting bulls at a bull riding competition. The goal of bull riding is to stay atop 1500 lbs of muscle and rage for more than eight seconds. Since controlling or resisting the bull is out of the question, you have to move with the animal, anticipating and following its whims. Old hands at the sport compare it to a dance where your partner is always leading. When you work closely with animals like this, things can go wrong, and this time they did. A bull broke Marshall’s back in two places, and that was the end of his fencing career. While looking for something else to do, a relative whose late father had made hats in Valentine, NE, suggested the trade to him, and James Marshall took up hat making.

Marshall Custom Hats sells handmade, wide-brimmed cowboy hats. But there are only 118 heads in Arthur, many of them too small for the rodeo. And hats last, not least because Marshall renovates two for every one he sells. There’s no website, and a strong preference for in-person sales over mail-order. So how does he make it work? Simply put, hats are serious business for riders and ranchers, and quality sells. People come for miles. Some come just to get measured, others are in town to buy livestock. So many come, in fact, that the waiting list for a new customer crept up to three years, and the store temporarily closed its order book just to get it down.

Few people who visited Arthur twenty years ago would have said that it needed a hatmaker, or could sustain one. And yet, through a combination of local knowledge, hard work, and chances good and bad, the store worked out. Unlike a thousand drop-shipping vendors who “cut out the middleman” on the same minimalist sweaters, this story is full of particularity. The same can be said of Post-Imperial, the New York brand selling beautiful Nigerian hand-dyed shirts, or the English tie makers who still trawl the archives in Macclesfield to find their next silk-screen designs.

This is why provenance interests me. Not because some people or places are the inheritors of a noble tradition, or the defenders of “real” values, or any other surreptitious way of raising the pains and achievements of one group of people over another. Rather, because every made object has a human origin, whether it comes about by careful planning or happenstance, by political decision, economic pressure, or personal inspiration. And unlike the movement of money, which is lightning fast and almost frictionless, physical objects and people rub off on the places they travel through. They tell stories which remain legible.

Pictured: Niyi Okuboyejo of Post-Imperial, wearing a hat.

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