RANKSTON — The palm leaf cowboy hat sat low on Dick Atwood's brow, his weathered face punctuated by his white sideburns and bushy moustache.
Moseying through the 12,000-square-foot warehouse near Frankston, the 81-year-old Atwood stopped, slowly pivoted and faced the industrial shelving lining several aisles. Each aisle teemed with tons of hats, from the floor to the top shelf.
Grabbing a small palm leaf hat, Atwood exclaimed, “We make the best cowboy hat out there, and other companies have and continue to copy our designs. We make 'em from small to large. This one here is for a 2-month-old child.”
Atwood attributed his many trips to Mexico and his love for Mexican-made palm leaf hats for inspiring him to make a hobby of selling hats to friends and family.
“People would always ask me where I got my hats, and they wanted one, so I would go down to Mexico and buy some and then come back and sell them,” he said.
He talked his wife of 50 years, Sharon, into putting a 12-by-16-foot portable building behind their ranch house off Anderson County Road 4104, but within just a few months the family had to rent space in Frankston.
A few months later and the business expanded to another three buildings in downtown Frankston.
“It really all got going so fast we almost couldn't keep up,” he said.
Atwood said he then decided to build the current facility on the ranch, complete with an office space and living quarters on the top three floors.
Atwood's hobby quickly morphed into a full-time endeavor when he bought the failing Mexican hat company in Sahuayo, Michoacan, Mexico, and began building a lucrative business.
“When I first started bringing the hats back to the states, my goal was to sell about 300 per year. Last year we sold more than 130,000 hats. I guess I surpassed my goal,” Atwood laughed.
Atwood Hats sells 26 styles of hat in palm leaf, Shantung, Bangora, wool, canvas and felt.
All of the palm leaf and straws are manufactured in Mexico and shipped to the ranch where they are warehoused until hat bands, eyelets and bands are placed on them and readied for shipment to the retailers, which Atwood says number more than 2,000 across the U.S. and Canada.
Employees at the facility at the Atwood ranch said they love working for a company in which dogs and even chickens can walk into the office like they own the place.
Tara Rodgers has been with Atwood for 16 years. Atwood called her an invaluable employee.
“She was working at Dairy Queen, and I asked her if she wanted to do something else,” Atwood said. “She said, “Yes,” and, well, for the first years, I would go sell the hats, and she would box them up and do all of the paper work,” he said.
Atwood is not just boss. He is his employees' friend.
“This weekend, Sharon and I are standing in for one employee's parents at her wedding to one of my ranch hands,” he said. “That is a big honor, and we are thrilled she wanted us to do it. So we will be walking down the aisle with her and then we have a big party planned for after the ceremony.”
After a tour through the warehouse, Atwood introduced his wife, who was graciously welcoming.
Mrs. Atwood laughed when asked how she and her husband have weathered 50 years of marriage.
“Well we definitely work at it, but for about the past five years, Dick's hearing hasn't been as good as it once was, so he hasn't heard my mumblings,” she said.
Mrs. Atwood now works full time in the office with Mrs. Rodgers and Theresa Ellis, who is married to a Scotsman whom Atwood loves to spend time with conversing about various subjects.
“Dick's little hobby that began all of those years ago has grown into a major business, but the entire time has been fun because we have made some good friends and met some great people along the way,” she said.
When asked if she sees her husband slowing down anytime soon she responded, “He's still wide open and will probably be that way until he can't anymore.”
Stepping out of the passenger seat in a pickup, Atwood walked into a non-descript old brick building in downtown Frankston where the company's felt hats take shape.
With his blue denim shirt soaked in sweat and beads of sweat rolling down the tip of his nose, Brooks said he was thankful for the cooler weather.
“A couple of weeks ago when it was in the 100s it was almost unbearable in here, but we still had to get the work done,” he said as steam spewed from a press he used to begin the shaping process.
The younger Atwood said on a good day he and his team can make about 50 high-quality felt hats, which sell upward of $900.
As he maneuvered around various pieces of equipment used in the shaping of a hat, Brooks Atwood talked about why his family's company was different than others when it came to quality.
“I think we have enough hat companies that are just trying to make all the money on every hat and not provide a real quality product. We let other people do it the way they want to do it, and we do it the way we want to do it,” he said. “We give our customers a good product.”
After visiting the felt hat location downtown, the father and son took a lunch break at the 7B Restaurant, where a buffet of steaming hot food such as chicken fried steak, beef stew and other items sat waiting to be devoured.
Sitting at a table, Atwood said his success came thanks to old-fashioned hard work.
Atwood said he owns 700 Angora goats, horses, chickens and a herd of cattle. They punctuate his success.
“I have the best horses I have ever owned, and I am enjoying life,” he said.
Atwood pointed out a little wood-framed house where he was born in Frankston and said though a doctor showed up just in time to catch him, there was never a birth certificate given to the family.
“I need to get back down to Mexico to check on the warehouse down there, but the passport people tell me that I don't exist,” he said chuckling. “I've got my wife working on it, but I asked those folks down there at the passport office if they could see me, and they said yes, but without a birth certificate, I didn't exist on paper. I don't know how, but somehow I exist with the IRS.”
Atwood said he had to get back to his office, because an order from Russia for hundreds of his hats had been placed, and he wanted to make sure it wasn't a scam.
“I just want to say one more thing. We make cowboy hats, but we don't care if line dancers wear them. We make them for cowboys, but anybody that wants can wear one,” he said.