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Last Hat Factory In ‘Hat City’ Closes

December 19, 1987 GMT

DANBURY, Conn. (AP) _ A 220-year-old tradition quietly died Friday when the last hatters in ″Hat City″ collected their severance pay at the Danbury Hat Co. and went home.

″We’re all hatters here,″ said employee Bill Falls, 28, of Danbury. ″It’s a little sad - my grandfather and father worked here. All of the old-timers made hats.″

Danbury Hat was the last operating hat factory in this western Connecticut city, where hatters plied their trade before the American Revolution, according to the Scott-Fanton Museum and Historical Society here.

In 1836, 134,000 hats were produced in Danbury. Production was up to 4.5 million in 1880 and peaked at 432 million in 1909, museum workers said. They said they did not have figures on the work force.

The hat industry started to slump in the 1950s. Trend-watchers had a number of theories: low-slung cars could not accommodate drivers in hats, John F. Kennedy refused to wear one, and fashions changed.

Several years ago, a public relations employee for the John B. Stetson Co., which bought Danbury Hat in 1983, claimed a resurgence was evident. Sales were up after actor Harrison Ford wore a hat in the movies ″Raiders of the Lost Ark″ and ″Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.″

But the trend apparently was short-lived, and Stetson announced about six months ago it would close the factory as part of the bankruptcy reorganization it entered into last year.

Danbury Mayor Joseph H. Sauer worked as a hatter in the 1940s on weekends while he was a high school student. He dyed hats for three years after graduation.

″Almost everyone in Danbury worked in the hat companies,″ he said. ″It was a one-crop economy here. And when hatting was down, everything was down in the economy.″

Danbury Hat’s closing came after a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in New York on Monday approved Stetson’s plan to sell most of its holdings to RHE Inc. of Richmond, Va., which makes Resistol hats.

Stetson’s 65 workers, about half of whom are Asian immigrants, filed into the office Friday to collect severance and bonus checks. They had been on unpaid furlough since Dec. 4 while the company held its annual inventory.

A picture of a cowboy hat looming over a herd of cattle and a cowboy graced the office wall. ″America grew up under a Stetson,″ said the caption.

″I’m going to miss it,″ said John Andrews, 45, of Bethel, who worked as a hatter for four years. ″It’s like part of Danbury has gone down the drain.″

Michael McColgan of Danbury, who worked at the factory for 12 years, said: ″My father worked here. I’ll be 63 in June so it doesn’t hurt me that bad. I’m going to look for another job.

″It’s sad though,″ he said. ″Some of the old hatters are really used to it.″

Added a woman who had been a hatter for 18 years: ″Who’s going to hire a 70-year-old lady? When I first came here in ’35, there was just hatting in Danbury.″

Down the street at the Stetson Factory Outlet, where hats and other items from the factory are sold, business was booming as soon as people heard the factory was closing, said employee Craig Kantor.

″Sales have been unbelievable,″ he said. ″People are asking for bags with the name ‘Stetson’ on it, they’re offering to buy stationery, any paraphernalia with ‘Stetson’ on it.

RHE says it will continue to produce Stetson hats in St. Joseph, Mo.