You can tell a lot about a person by the hat he wears. Are you riding the Great Basin range and prefer a buckaroo crease, or do you don a formal, bound-edge brim chapeau for Western pleasure shows? Choice of color, design and shape, with subtle differences in the height and crease of the crown, the amount of curl in the brim, and even care and maintenance, make a Western hat a bold statement about the person under the lid. Shorty Koger, 63, owner of Shorty’s Caboy Hattery (www.shortyshattery.com), has helped customers find their own distinct look for 20 years. Whether you sport a top-flight, traditional cutterstyle hat, are hankering for a Charolais or Holstein hide-brimmed hat, or lean more to the exotic with crocodile-embossed or gazelle overlay on camel hats, whatever your style, Shorty’s can make it.
Located in historic Stockyards City in Oklahoma City, Koger said she operates the only woman-owned custom hattery in the United States. This Western hatter is known by cutters, reiners, working cow horsemen, saddle bronc riders, ropers and other horse enthusiasts for her inimitable style and the matchless quality of her hats. When asked about her company’s unusual name, Koger said “caboy” is slang for cowboy. “It’s for people to ask questions. It gets their attention, and so they always remember it. Texans accuse me of not knowing how to spell cowboy,” she said with a laugh.
A LOVE FOR HATS
Born Lavonna Koger, Shorty was raised in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and has lived in the Oklahoma City area since 1955. The youngest of four children, she was the runt of the family, so her brothers and sisters nicknamed her Shorty. During the ’60s and ’70s, Koger ran barrels and participated in all-girl rodeos. However, after her father died, she didn’t have a facility for keeping horses and had to give it up. But all the while she was drawn to the iconic cowboy hat. “I just had a love for hats,” Koger said. “Back then [in the ’60s and ’70s], almost all hats came in with open crowns, so you had to know how to shape them. That’s when I taught myself how to crease hats. It was just trial and error, and when I went to rodeos, they would always have me get a tea kettle out and crease hats, which is how it all began. Another thing we’d do is turn on the shower real hot and shape our hats that way. All of us girls would stay in motel rooms together during the rodeos because we didn’t have any money.” Koger also rode bulls for a couple of years, but injured her arm. Before becoming a traveling haberdasher, in the late ’60s she owned a little Western store in Moore, Oklahoma. Later, she went on the road selling to Western stores for a company out of Fort Worth, and journeyed across four states carrying three or four lines. Koger sponsored junior rodeos, and with a business partner had a string of rodeo stock. She got the initial push to go into business for herself because her brother had a bad hat experience. “My brother had sent off a couple of hats to have them renovated, and they came back ruined. He said, ‘You know, as much as you like to mess with hats, you ought to see what kind of business you could do cleaning hats,’ and I thought, ‘What a great idea.’ ”
BECOMING A BUSINESSWOMAN
Koger wanted to learn the business of renovation and restoration of Western hats but couldn’t find any equipment, and help from fellow hatmakers was not forthcoming, leaving Koger to her own devices. “None of the custom hatters would teach you anything because they didn’t want the competition,” she said. So Koger worked diligently at her craft by herself for two years. Eventually needing to purchase her own equipment, she knew of a guy who happened to live in town who cleaned hats in a little shed outside of his house, so Koger went to visit with him. She asked him if he knew anybody who had any equipment for sale, and, as destiny would have it, he said his whole business was for sale. Koger’s brothers and sisters thought buying the business was a great idea, so they all chipped in money for the down payment. Ironically, that seller’s name was Shorty Barnett. Barnett also created the amusing hat-and-legs logo for Shorty’s Caboy Hattery. “I had to go through a learning period, and he [Shorty Barnett] trained me for about two or three weeks and that was about it. My sister and I’d go to shows to sell a few hats, and I’d come back here and make them myself.” Koger moved her business just a few miles from where they lived and finished her self-taught apprenticeship. She couldn’t afford the fancy, high-priced hattery machines from France, so she made do until she later purchased an antique blocking machine and other hat-making equipment. Barnett would come by every once in awhile to advise her on cleaning, but the art of custom-making hats was entirely self-taught. “I threw away a lot of hats,” she said laughing. “It took me 10-12 years to get good at it. I now have an eye for what I want the hat to look like. There’s a lot more to making hats than people realize.” And as she got better, she went to larger shows and moved her business to the Western district known as Stockyards City. She now attends and sets up shop at cattlemen’s conventions, the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity, the National Reining Horse Association Futurity and numerous others. “I built my business by going out and doing shows and cattlemen’s conventions in different states. Folks who do Western pleasure and halter are very particular about their hats, so if you can please them, you’ve accomplished something. We take care of a lot of horse show people, and we do the cutting show in Fort Worth, and I do reiners and working cow horse. I’m married to my business. I love my business. And every day I look forward to coming to it,” Koger said. Some of the more notable horse folks who wear her hats are Carol Rose, Todd Crawford and Ron Ralls, to name only a few. “Carol Rose has helped me tremendously in my business,” Koger said. “She ignored me for a long time, and finally, she stopped in my booth. We’ve ended up becoming very dear friends. She said there’s no other hat like a Shorty’s hat.”
Shorty’s hats are known for their comfort and for staying on your head. They are all handmade, and Koger insists on the highest-quality materials available. The fur is hand-selected and imported from France, and her hats are blended with beaver and European hare, which is better than domestic rabbit fur because of the colder climate, making the fur coat much thicker. Regarding those mysterious X’s, there is no set industry standard. However, for Koger, the higher the numer of X’s, the higher percentage of beaver in the hat. Though a 20X hat is excellent, it still will not have the soft, velvety finish of a 100X, or 100 percent, beaver hat. Beaver has long been the preferred fur for hats because it is water-resistant, will not spot and will hold its shape when it gets wet. Customers are given an almost limitless number of options to personalize their hats, with such touches as brands, beading and embroidery, and Koger handmakes and customizes all her hatbands and stampede strings, as well.
THE BREAST CANCER AWARENESS HAT
Koger’s well-known pink Breast Cancer Awareness Hat originated with her sister, Shirley Bowman, who worked for Shorty for seven years and was diagnosed with cancer. Yet Bowman didn’t tell anyone for a year about her condition because she didn’t have insurance Bowman was an inspiration to Koger as she continued to work and courageously fight the disease until the cancer ultimately invaded her brain. “She worked when she had chemo, she worked when she had radiation, she worked every day and was such an inspiration.” Koger herself was diagnosed with cancer the year Bowman died, but she didn’t burden her sister with the tragic news. “I didn’t tell her because she had enough to deal with. I went and had a couple of lumpectomies, and they still couldn’t get it all. We buried her [Shirley Bowman] Nov. 4, 2004, and the very next week, I went in and had a double mastectomy. So far, eveything is good.” For every Breast Cancer Awareness Hat sold, Koger gave a portion of the money to a fund to honor the memory of Bowman. The pink, 20X hat retails for $350, and $100 is donated for every one sold. Another company that makes a breast cancer jacket gave 30 percent of its sales to the fund, as well, and the fund ended up with about $14,000. But Koger had a problem. To whom was she to give the money? Fortuitously, a lady who had bought a hat from Koger just happened to be the director of critical operations at the University of Oklahoma Cancer Institute. Koger now has an endowment in her sister’s name. Koger was adamant that the money not go to research, but to immediate patient care, so The Shirley Bowman Endowed Fund aids people who have cancer but who do not have insurance. “We are around $200,000 in a year and a half,” she said proudly. “Once I reach $250,000, the state will match that, and it will stay in my sister’s name forever.”
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