FRANKSTON – A surefire way to tell the difference between a real cowboy and a weekend dude rancher is to shake hands.
Custom hat maker Brooks Atwood doesn’t dwell on people’s occupations or actual time spent in the saddle - his primary concern is matching folks to a quality cowboy hat that fits well and looks good on them, regardless of zip code.
“Texas doesn’t have a lock on good cowboys,” he said with a grin. “There are different types of cowboys.”
There are apparently rodeo cowboys, ranch cowboys, urban cowboys and people who simply like John Wayne’s iconic portrayal of Chisum.
But one thing they have all seem to have in common - at least when they walk into the doors of Atwood Hat Company in Frankston - is a desire to own an authentic piece of a Lone Star legacy.
“There is a certain clientele that still want a really high quality hat … they demand a good product,” he said. “And that’s what we give them.”
Atwood is following in the footsteps of his father, Dick Atwood, who started the company in the 1990s in a tiny portable building.
The elder Atwood wanted a tried-and-true hat for both working the ranch and wearing to town, believing others might want the same.
His hunch proved correct, it seems.
Atwood Hats is located today on the main drag in Frankston, 110 W. Main, on a sprawling piece of piece of downtown real estate that’s seen a lot of additions and renovations over the years.
A final expansion unfolded a few years ago, giving the growing company a trendy looking showroom and a little extra elbowroom.
The new storefront is a work of contrasts between modern and rustic - walls of windows, soaring ceilings and plenty of textures, such as old wood and exposed bricks.
It’s a far cry from the old days, when materials and messages were shuttled from building to building via a little red wagon.
“Dad always set the example,” Atwood said. “You’re either changing or you’re losing.”
The store is packed with hats of just about every conceivable curve and form, all of which are designed with cowboys in mind – hats for working, for going out on the town, for walking a daughter down the aisle or simply for wearing and enjoying.
Some are made of tightly woven palm leaves or straw, others of a sturdy felt, featuring extras such as wool, rabbit and beaver hair.
The company also specializes in the coveted, handmade Jim Spradley hats.
“Dad’s always been a big picture guy,” Atwood said. “He’s done a lot of stuff and it always worked - the ideas are still coming.”
HATS TO HANG ONTO
In spite of tweaking locations, most of what people seem to appreciate about the business is still the same - durability and hands-on attention to detail.
The company manufactures a couple of hundred hats a day, amounting to roughly 105,000 sold annually in the United States and around the globe.
Atwood said he works individually with some customers, relying on old-school technology to ensure a perfect fit, every time.
His “office” is a collection of machinery that ranges from steaming hot irons and a heavy-duty sewing machine to 150-year-old sizing equipment.
There are no cushy leather chairs, cowhide rugs, polished wood walls or a desk the size of a sedan as one might expect, but heaping doses of country character - a painted porch rocker, an oversized oil painting of a cowboy at work and reruns of Andy Griffith playing in the background.
“This is my comfort zone,” Atwood said. “People can come in and get a custom hat … when he puts it on, it feels like a sock.”
In an adjoining room, there is a collection of machines that perform functions ranging from pressing and cutting brims to shaping the crowns.
Heavy steam irons heated with open-air flames keep the place toasty, especially in the heat of the summer.
Employee Bob Fontenot, found shaping hats during a recent visit, is a painter by trade, but joined the company after helping with one of its construction projects.
On the job, the headwear is his canvas.
“I just liked it here,” Fontenot said, examining the curve of a work in progress. “I’m not sure why I’m here, but I liked working with Brooks.”
Office Manager Junior Mascorro, a longtime friend and employee, wears a favorite Atwood hat to work every day.
People offer to buy it, but he plans on hanging onto the hat and the job.
“Here, it’s family,” Mascorro said. “It’s work, yes, but you take pride in it.”
Atwood said it takes everyone working together, doing whatever task is necessary to keep the company successful and the customers satisfied.
Judging from a rather painful looking heat blister on his index finger, Atwood seems to take his philosophy to heart.
“I like competition,” he said. “We’ll never be the biggest hat company, but we’ll be the best.”
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