Two Johns live by the creativity of their hands
By Taylor Anderson
It’s not often one meets a theoretical physicist. Even rarer, still, is finding one that left General Electric and the oil industry to work with his hands.
Even less oft is a cowboy hat making, theoretical physicist who’s spanned the spectrum of craftsmanship over his 73 years.
John Morris is such a man.
John left upstate New York for Boulder, Colorado in the ‘60s, and then led his family to Bozeman to escape the crowding Colorado college town for better scenery, better fishing and a slight change of pace.
Today, his business, Rocky Mountain Hat Company, sits watching over the Gallatin Valley on Highway 191 outside of town. His well-tamed, snow-white hair and mustache lend him a clean-cut look. He is a strong man still, and he represents an aging group of artisans preserving old world trades in southwest Montana.
John has applied his incredible intelligence and ingenuity toward making custom parts for the machines throughout his shop, which is scattered with thousands of parts, hats, orders and backorders covered in sticky notes.
His son, John Jr., 52, also works the business. The two sit on a sunny Thursday afternoon in Bozeman with their heads down, each working a piece of beaver or sheep in a different stage of the hat making process. John Sr., in his throne before a Bernina sewing machine, sits upright, a hunch on his back not visible from the front.
Dozens of cowboy hats varying in shape and color form columns on the walls, the styles reminiscent of the hats seen in just about every Western movie.
A counter forms an L-shape near the front of the room. Behind it, in tall stacks throughout the shop, wooden blocks cut into the egg shape of a head, size measurements written on the side—a few hundred in all—act as record for different customers throughout the 21 years the father and son have been in business in Gallatin County.
Scattered throughout the store are pieces of antiquated foreign machinery from the Industrial Revolution. Many of them are French, and each has served a purpose in a now obsolete method of hat making. They sit retired on a workbench facing the front doors of the store.
John Jr. points at a French machine shaped like a top hat and consists of hundreds of thin metal arms and clamps to measure size. He expresses no nostalgia toward the outdated equipment he’s gathered over the years.
“There’s a million moving pieces and none of them worked quite right,” he says.
The Morrises still use machines that require the use of hands for operation, something that’s less common in the digitalized manufacturing world of today.
“We were hand-sewin’ for quite a few years before we got this one,” John Sr. says, pointing at an old Bernina he uses for a bound ribbon around the brim of each Rocky Mountain hat. (He neglects to mention that he customized the machine over the years to make sewing more efficient and effective.)
“When I meet another hat maker, the first thing I do is look at the bound edge,” he says. If it doesn’t have the bound edge, he doesn’t respect the hat maker.
Various vapor steamers stationed around the shop spray the beaver fur to treat and form it. These machines, connected with hoses to a base steam machine, were custom fashioned and are by no means pretty.
The two have touched and adapted everything in the store, including a framed 1994 article from a Bozeman paper. They seem to control the world around them rather than observe. It’s truly an old lifestyle fashioned to fit modern culture. And everything tells a story.
“Those hats up there are for friends and family that have died,” John Sr. says, pointing to the massive elk rack wearing four hats—two for family, one for a friend, and one for a customer whose last wish was to give his cherished hat with its quartz-encrusted ribbon back to the boys.
John Sr. left his job with General Electric in New York in the 1960s, where he worked among Nobel winners developing high radiation large screen televisions, and traded it for a Western life in Colorado. “I was basically forced to party in Boulder for six months,” he recalls.
Today he says with a grin that he got insider information on oil companies as they were about to go public near Boulder. He also worked as a headhunter to help start four small oil companies, finding CEOs and presidents for new startups.
John Jr., also a trained geologist, worked in the oil business for a time during his younger years, rough necking on the rigs for summer jobs.
The two also developed through generations of family share a passion for hunting, working with their hands, and basically doing what they want.
About a dozen trophy animals line the higher sections of the walls in the front of the store. They, too, help tell the Morrises’ story prior to starting the hat business: Rocky Mountain Recurve wooden hunting bows. John Sr. speaks lightly of it, saying, “I built a bow, I shot an antelope.”
The Morrises did well making the long, hand-carved wooden hunting bows from high-quality wood. Hunting blogs today are still clogged with posts by enthusiasts looking to buy the old bows and raving about their beauty and function. There was a two-year backlog for the specialty bows, but the money wasn’t there for the time and energy spent making them, so they gave it up and moved on. John Sr. moved to Bozeman the following year.
A large painting of a cowboy vaguely resembling John Sr. hangs on the wall above the cash register. It’s not John, but he was a friend of the painter, world-renowned Willy Matthews, who also designed the bucking horse logo that goes in the crown of each hat. Dozens of other sketches and paintings are scattered across the walls, alongside elk, deer, bear and a casting of a giant prehistoric bison.
“Those ones up there came from a friend that did 37 years hard time for killin’ a man,” says John Sr., pointing to two original paintings by Western artist and friend Richard Stewart. Everything has its purpose and history here, with John Sr. as the patriarch and curator.
One afternoon, a woman driving to Great Falls notices the Western outpost and stops inside. She’s welcomed, as is customary, by Dan, the oversized and congenial 4-year-old French Brittany Spaniel. “I’m just passing through and don’t have a real interest in buying today,” she says, petting Dan’s head.
Though this sort of stop seems less appreciated than friend and customer visits, John Sr. listens to her declarations of amazement. “You know, there’s not a lot of folks that do what you do here,” the woman says, pacing the front room with her chin raised up to view the hats and artifacts of craft.
John Sr. sits quietly, eyeing his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Coke. He may or may not hear her compliments—his hearing seems to be fading in his advancing age—but something in his demeanor says there’s no room left to accept gratitude for his trade. That, or he has the poker face of an outlaw.
The hat company has an eight-month backlog, but they don’t rush.
“We’re not a high volume, money priority operation,” John Jr. says. “I go out shootin’, dad comes in at noon.”
They’ve come a long way from the family’s beginnings on the East Coast, but they seem to have found their place in a county that appreciates its handmade goods.
As for how long they’ll stay in the game, John Jr. seems to know there’s something else nearing.
“The future can hold a lot of different cards,” he says, hiding behind a theoretical poker hand. “I’m not roped into this for the rest of my life. As far as future plans, no, my son won’t be in here taking over.”