Nat's Hats Hangin' High

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25 July 2009

An old American cowboy saying calls it, "the last thing you take off and the first thing that is noticed."  What is it?  The cowboy hat.

You can see 500 of them in Wichita Falls, Texas at the Museum of North Texas History.  The iconic image of America's Old West is hanging in a new exhibit called "Nat's Hats" courtesy of Nat Fleming.

Fleming was the proprietor of the Cow Lot Western Wear Store in Wichita Falls starting in 1953 and for the next 54 years sold Texas hats and boots.  He retired in 2006.

While Fleming has moved on to retirement and a ranch in a little town outside Wichita Falls, his hat collection is a getting a new life at the museum.

Fleming's cowboy hat collection began as a joke.  His brother sent him an old 10 gallon hat that had a bullet hole in the brim.  "Nat received it and nailed it to one of the rafters in his store," says exhibit curator Bobby Braun.

"Other customers wanted to see their hats on the wall the same way," says Braun.  Over the next 50 years, the number of hats accumulated. 

Many of the hats belonged to North Texas ranchers, cowboys, oil workers and businessmen.  "Everybody here, almost, wears a western hat.  You never see anything else, but a western hat," Braun says.

One that that got away is a hat owned by cowboy movie star, Gene Autry.  When word spread that Fleming was planning to close his store, the Autry hat was reclaimed by his family.   

Braun says the Stetson is one of the most popular in the collection.

Listen to Interview with curator Bobby Braun