BRIMMING WITH STYLE: Marshall Custom Hats thrives in small town
In Arthur, Nebraska, cowboy hats are still made the old-fashion way—one at a time, by hand.
While it may require waiting two years to get that hat, the people who want them don’t seem to mind.
James Marshall has been making hats for 14 years in Arthur, population 118, the last time anybody counted. He grew up in the Sandhills, and had a fencing business in Arthur. He was helping sort bulls at a bull riding in Mitchell, Nebraska, when a bull got him down and broke his back in a couple places. “I tried to go back to fencing, but my back wouldn’t let me go back to digging post holes. I was trying to think of something to do to stay self-employed in Arthur.”
That’s when the Sandhills grapevine helped out. A distant relative had heard of Marshall’s predicament and thought she might have just the opportunity for him. Her father, Ron Hollenbeck, had owned Snake River Hat Company in Valentine, Nebraska, and died about the same time as Marshall’s accident. “She called and asked if I’d be interested in making hats. I never thought about making hats until she called.”
Marshall took a business class through the University of Nebraska and put together a business plan, and it looked like it might work out for him. A 10-day apprenticeship with a hatmaker in Montana gave him the knowledge he needed, and the equipment and contacts he got from Snake River Hat Company got him started.
He says there are a lot of reasons he’s still running a one-man shop in the middle of the Sandhills. “There’s not any better people than the people who live in rural areas as far as helping out the neighbors and being friendly and all-around good people. Your overhead in these small communities is not near as much as if you’re trying to buy or rent a building in downtown Omaha. I’m very involved in the community. I’m on the board trying to build a new community center. I’ve always been on the school board and things like that. I just like the small town atmosphere.”
Being the only person in the shop, it often works to Marshall’s benefit when he has a slow day because he can get more done. But he doesn’t mind the “busy” days when he has four or five people stop in his store. “It’s all good,” he says.
Marshall doesn’t own a computer, and he doesn’t do any advertising. His marketing strategy is as old-fashion as his business—strictly word-of-mouth. “It’s amazing that about 42 percent of my customers are repeat customers. Once I get them in once, they’re usually back for another one. A lot of guys have left here with a $700 hat and went to wearing it for everyday. The hat stays on their head and holds up. They can go through a $300 hat twice a year, but if they buy one of these they can get four or five years out of it, sometimes longer, depending on how they take care of them. It ends up being a better value.”
Marshall gets the hat bodies from a company in Tennessee, and they are either 100 percent beaver, or 50 percent beaver and 50 percent rabbit fur. From that point, until it fits on the customer’s head, Marshall is the only one who touches the hats. For the people who can come into the store, Marshall can fit the hat precisely, building a block that’s shaped just like their head. He mails a head-measuring device to the people who can’t make it to Arthur, but he prefers to be able to fit it himself.
The last time he figured it up, he had sent hats to 35 states and six countries. As of today, he has more than 200 hats on order. “I guess I know what I’m going to be doing for the next couple years.”
You can reach Marshall Custom Hats at 214 Staples St, Arthur, Nebraska, or by phone at (308) 764-2420.