Montanans Say Hot Hatter Sheila Kirkpatrick Makes the Best Brims Under the Big Sky

updated 05/15/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 01:00AM

For Montanans it's a matter of priorities. To get a little breathing room, they'll move 80 miles out of town. To get good summer grazing for their cattle, they'll put up with subzero winters. And for something as important as a hat, they'll drive into the Big Hole Valley, follow Highway 43 along the white-water Big Hole River and pull in at a brown converted garage, just outside one-store Wisdom (pop. 100). There they'll fork over $120 to $250 for one of Sheila Kirkpatrick's handmade custom-fitted beauties. "They hate like hell to buy groceries," says Sheila's husband, Buzz. "But they'll spend $250 on a hat."

At least they will if the words "Kirkpatrick Custom Hatters, Wisdom, Montana" are embossed in gold, along with the buyer's name, on the leather sweatband. As someone who has lived two-thirds of her 36 years in Montana, Kirkpatrick understands just what a certain dip to the brim or crease in the crown means to the ranchers who head her way. "Hats say important things about how people feel about themselves," she says. Adds Billings, Mont., retailer Del Frank, who refers customers to Kirkpatrick: "Hats are to Sheila what clay is to an artist. She can make a hat do whatever she wants. She can make it talk."

When Buzz, 43, a rancher, and two other helpers pitch in, Kirkpatrick can turn out as many as six hats a day. Since Kirkpatrick Custom Hatters has been selected by the Montana Centennial Committee to produce a limited edition of 2,000 numbered hats for the state's centenary this year (and another 500 for the Great Montana Cattle Drive in September), Sheila is working overtime in her 15-foot by 15-foot wood-heated workroom. Taking a dome-shaped cone of felt made for her at a factory from rabbit or beaver fur, she starts by molding it to the customer's size on an old-fashioned wooden blocking form. Jets of hot steam coax the felt along. Shaping the crown and brim to flatter the wearer is the crux of Kirkpatrick's art. J.R. Ewing's famous Dallas headgear fails to impress her. "He wears a kind of dude hat," she says. "It's too citified. He needs a little more dip in the brim."

Kirkpatrick offers every customer a guarantee. "If you don't like my work, you get your money back," she says, adding, "We've never lost or messed up a hat yet."

The first hat Kirkpatrick ever customized was one her father, a feed salesman and part-time rodeo announcer, gave her shortly after the family moved to Billings from South Dakota when Sheila was 12. At 19 and newly married, she got a job in a Billings Western-wear store. Ten years there gave her plenty of practice shaping ready-mades. "When they come out of a box, hats don't look like anything," she explains.

Divorced and with her daughter Kristy, now 13, to support, Sheila worked two years for a custom hatter until an oil refinery job as a ditchdigger promised a bigger paycheck. In 1983, she married Donald "Buzz" Kirkpatrick, then a ranch hand, who convinced her to hang her hat in the Big Hole, the southwestern Montana valley with only 500 people spread over 700,000 acres. To pass time in Wisdom, Sheila set up shop in town as a hatmaker, later relocating to the ranch and then the garage. At first, business was mainly cleaning and reblocking. But after the birth of their daughter Ericka in 1985, the enterprise began to make headway.

Kirkpatrick's first break came that year when singer Hank Williams Jr., who owns a vacation home in the Big Hole, sent her a couple of hats for cleaning. She sent them back—along with one of her own. Williams has since ordered five more, wearing one last month on the Country Music Awards telecast. Meantime, the area's lanky, laconic cowboys began placing orders and spreading the word. Last year, Sheila, who doesn't advertise and doesn't sell in stores, had 400 mail and phone orders from around the country.

The two most popular colors are black and a cream color known as silver belly—ostensibly for the color of a beaver's underside. Styles include the Rancher Crease (a center dent and two side dents) and the traditional Montana Crease (a center dent and a front-sloping crown). Montana cowboys don't cotton much to 10-gallon hats ("Big high-crowned things like Hoss Cartwright wore," Sheila explains) or four-dent Mountie Peaks favored by "buckaroos," Southwestern cowpokes who (ugh) tuck their jeans into their boots.

Finishing a Centennial Montana Crease, Sheila places it in a plastic bag and piles into the pickup with Buzz and their four kids (Buzz has two from his first marriage) for an 80-mile run into Butte to buy groceries and make a delivery. They are to meet a customer in a diner parking lot. Steve Guidoni, a tall, mustachioed mechanic who describes himself as "more or less a mountain man," preens when he dons his new hat. He says he plans to show it off at an Elks banquet the next night. "We really can't afford this," admits wife Martha, happily handing Kirkpatrick a check for the balance on the $150 order, "but we're gonna buy it anyway." Her husband just tugs on the brim and grins.

—Mary Lisa Gavenas, Meg Grant in Wisdom

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