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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Two Cowboys on a Journey: Smithbilt Hats, Calgary - Alberta

The White Hatters of Calgary

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The company Smithbilt Hats Inc. has been crafting hats since 1919. After doing research on what type of business to open, a young entrepreneurial Morris Shumiatcher went to his local bank and borrowed $300 to buy Calgary Hat Works, and Smithbilt Hats was born. This means the company is actually older than the ninety-seven years it had its name.

In 1946 they've made the first white Cowboy Hat. The White Hat would become the internationally recognized symbol of the Calgary Stampede and the City of Calgary. In 1949, Mayor Don Mackay donned a White Smithbilt on a mission to promote Calgary and began handing out the White Hat to visiting dignitaries. The City of Calgary continues this tradition today. 

Most Calgarians know this story already, but do we still remember what it is all about?

Today, not many people wear hats and even fewer wear cowboy hats. This changes in this part of the world during Stampede, which takes place the first weeks of July every year. For this event, everyone in the region dusts off their cowboy hats and for one amazing week they are all Cowboys and Cowgirls again.

Every year, as we put away our hats after the festivities of the Stampede, I cannot help but wonder if there is still a place for a Cowboy in today's world? Is there still significance to the symbol of a Cowboy hat in today's Calgary and western society in general? 

Some may argue the city has lost its heritage in favour of becoming a typical North American metropolis, that it is indistinguishable from places such as Denver or Houston. Just a smaller version. Have we become what many feared may come from the multicultural melting pot, where everyone is somebody and nobody is actually anybody? What happened to the real Cowboys among us?

If you ask the older folk, they tell you quickly about the value system of the typical Cowboy. There are many versions, but it usually goes something like this:
  • Honour: No one carries honour like a cowboy. To him, it's like breathing. It is who he is.
  • Loyalty: He rides for the brand, for his family and for his people.
  • Independence: The west and what it stands for is inbred in a cowboy. Some may call him a rebel. The pioneering spirit is what sets him apart.
  • Bravery: A cowboy, whether working or rodeo, faces elements and dangerous animals without fear. He perseveres with his conviction and is ready to face the consequences, whether they are good or bad.
  • A sense of Self: A cowboy has a unique ability to be himself. As Paul Brandt put it in his song for Alberta: "Independence in their veins." A person identifies himself with Cowboy is a person that knows who he is, and can be.
I reason that these are values that still prevail in today's world. In our travels, we've found them often, and in particular, prevailing amongst the people that make things: The Producers. The people responsible for the foundation of our economy and our society: 
  • Honour: Producers realize that you don't take something that doesn't belong to you. You earn what you have through honourable hard work, by building something that provides value to the people around you.
  • Loyalty: They are loyal to their identity, family, workers and communities. They are particularly loyal to the people that value who they are and appreciates them for what they do.
  • Independence: The Producers are the people that ask: "Why not?". Their independence moves creative innovation and drives us forward to find better ways to live, care and look after ourselves and our world we live in.
  • Bravery: Ask anyone that dares to establish a producing and manufacturing business just how hard it is to be successful. While you fight for a place in the market you are confronted with heavy taxes, levies, licenses, legislation and regulations. Every non-producer and service provider out there is determined to milk you as Producer, in every way possible for the very last drop of benefit they can extract from your efforts. Producers are the bravest among us.
  • A sense of Self: Every Producer and maker know the satisfaction and value they derive from what they make. Many will tell you, they would be doing it, even if they cannot make a living from it. They have a rare gift of self-worth. Their skills and values cannot easily be taken from them.
For the similar values between that of a Cowboy and a Producer, I wear my Cowboy hat proudly - now a Smithbilt hat. I subscribe to the values of a Cowboy, and I salute the Producers amongst us, who dare to make something and make a difference.


We thought we had the wrong building when looking for the Smithbilt shop and factory. We drove by a number of times before we realized that this is in fact where we should be. The Smithbilt branded truck outside confirmed our suspicions. The five-decade-old sign outside the building finally gave up the ghost this winter, which didn't make it any easier to know if we've arrived. You really must know the folks at Smithbilt personally, or be very, very committed to find the home of Calgary's white hat, to get to it.

Brian Hanson, today's proprietor, greeted us at the door in typical Cowboy fashion with a strong straight handshake and a firm look in the eye. We commented about the sign, and he assured us that Smithbilt is finally heading to a new building later this year. They are still debating if the sign should come along. 

When you see the photographs against the wall of this iconic company you realize just how profound a place this is. Even the Dalai Lama has one of Smithbilt's hats, and he wore it (for the photo opportunity at least), which goes against his faith. 

As Brian took us through their manufacturing processes we saw equipment and processes that are decades old. All are still doing the job for which they were originally invented, designed and built. 

I will let the video tell the rest of the story. 

The most pivotal observation of the day is the recognition that Smithbilt Hats is a piece of Calgary and a piece of what remains of the Cowboy values and heritage. Brian and his team of investors are only caretakers of this iconic brand, which will hopefully survive another one hundred years.

One proud part of me want Smithbilt to be the biggest hat business in the world, and for everyone to know about this amazing business, its heritage and its people. The other part wants to keep it a secret and preserve what it is. It is our brand, my Smithbilt. A happy place for a weary Cowboy in need of a new hat, and an opportunity to reminisce over the good times.

Hendrik van Wyk
Smithbilt Cowboy Hat-Wearing Producer

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