Montana Mad Hatters
Women at Work
Sheila Kirkpatrick-MassarMontana Mad Hatters
by Rebecca Ballotta
Sheila Kirkpatrick-Massar was the first hatter ever to be inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1992. And to date, she is still the only hatter ever to be inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Kirkpatrick-Massar understands cowboy hats—actually most styles of hats for that matter—and she quickly figures out what style best suits your face shape, skin tones, and personality. She uses no advertising other than word-of-mouth, and her hats are not sold in any store other than her own, Montana Mad Hatters, in Twin Bridges. Yet, Kirkpatrick-Massar has received notable press over the last three decades, including being featured in a Japanese documentary produced by their version of PBS, and she stays busy year-round making custom hats! This seems amazing to some since Montana Mad Hatters is located in the middle of nowhere (which paradigm Kirkpatrick-Massar rebuts by saying she is actually in the “center of everywhere”). “I always have hats in front of me to make. I get orders from all over the world—New Zealand, Japan, England, Malaysia—as well as from locals; but I also keep the shop for walk-ins who may need a quick gift,” Kirkpatrick-Massar explained. When she began making hats over 35 years ago, Kirkpatrick-Massar discovered that the world of hat makers was like a “secret little club.” It seemed that other hatters didn’t want to share their tricks of the trade. “A person had to ruin a few hats to learn on their own; to figure out what a hat can take and what it can’t take in the process.” Although it seems these days more hatters are actually doing some apprentice-type programs to train other hat makers, Kirkpatrick-Massar’s best estimate regarding the number of custom hat makers in the U.S. is around 40—and very few of those are women. “Equipment is also an issue,” added Kirkpatrick-Massar. “There’s not much out there. You pretty much have to get it from previous hat makers. Some people are making blocks, but not making new hat machines.” Most of Kirkpatrick-Massar’s equipment is 70 to 100 years old and, if a machine has “irons that go gunny sack,” she has to search for parts not designed for that machine, but that will work with modifications. Usually, she can tear down a machine and fix it herself, but when she can’t find usable parts, she calls on a machinist friend to design and build what she needs. The styles of hats made at Montana Mad Hatters span the gamut from cowboy hats and derbies to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” style to fishing hats. One very unusual order came in from a magician who needed a “top hat-looking thing” the size of which could accommodate him pulling a bowling ball out of it. Kirkpatrick-Massar said, “I ended up using a five-gallon bucket to figure out how to do that. I’m always willing to try to figure it out—I hate to say I couldn’t do something.” Most people don’t understand what it takes to build a custom hat. Kirkpatrick-Massar begins with a raw body usually made from beaver, rabbit, and/or nutria (coypu). Then, the hat is steamed, blocked, shaped by hand, ironed, curled, pounced (sanded), sewn, decorated, etc. The differences between a custom hat and a “store-bought” hat are indubitable. Besides the higher quality of materials and craftsmanship that make the chapeau last for years, the sizing can be adjusted to a fraction of an inch making your hat fit your head just right. “No specific type of person buys these hats. The kid that works hard on the ranch wants a good hat as much as anyone. He has a strong work ethic and I honor that by keeping prices affordable. But it’s not just cowboys who want a quality hat. I’ve had a guy covered with tattoos come in for a “Doc Holliday” hat. My customers come from every walk of life—from the real working cowboy to the banker in New York City, or doctors and lawyers. They’re all the same, just good people who love the western way of life. When I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, it was because of what we represent—our western way of life—where a handshake is your bond—people like to be affiliated with that.” Kirkpatrick-Massar’s humility is another reason for her induction. She was quick to add, “Sometimes we forget to give credit where credit is due. We get too big for our own britches and forget where we came from. I feel blessed to be given this talent, knowing it came from God. I always want to give Him the glory for it.” Kirkpatrick-Massar’s artistic bend eventually compelled her to expand beyond hats to making bronze sculptures and leather accessories (chaps, visors, etc.). But hats will always be her primary product. “This has been a good business for me. It has treated me right and lets me meet such an array of amazing people. There’s no doubt in my mind it is truly the right thing for me to be doing.” As long as there are cowboys, there will be a need for the highest quality of custom cowboy hats. Montana’s mad hatter, Sheila Kirkpatrick-Massar, continues to work hard to ensure that need is met with style.
Rebecca Ballotta is a Montana native and Bozeman-based freelance writer, ghostwriter, editor, and writing coach. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications both regionally and nationally. She also provides contract editing through MSU’s Graduate Department. She can be reached through her Web site, www.rebeccaballotta.com.