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All in the heart and soul

Laura A. Ball
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EAGLE COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS When you see Collis Wade, ask him why the brim of his cowboy hat curls up on the sides and lays square in the middle. “In Texas, of course, we wear it straight, like George Strait, and some people in Colorado do, too,” the Lone Star native said in a soft but steadfast Southern drawl of the country music legend. “He’s not flashy like Garth Brooks. Cowboys don’t believe in all that sort of stuff.”The 65-year-old natural born cowboy calls Waco home but spends nine months out of the year on the road selling cowboy hats from Texas to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Louisiana and Oklahoma. He fell in love with the mountains of Colorado in the ’60s when he was serving in the army prior to his release just before Vietnam, and makes it a point to return to the Rockies year after year.

He’ll spend the next five days keeping shop on the scenic Eagle County Fairgrounds right between the Ferris wheel at the edge of the road and Norm’s pony rides next to the river, where he’ll enjoy getting “nowhere fast.” He reckons it’s not as dusty as it was in Durango, his last stop, where he struggled to keep all his hats clean.”I just love the wide-open spaces,” he said gazing at the view from all directions. A machinist by trade, making tools for oil drilling, Wade got into the hat business 18 years ago when he simultaneously lost his job and got divorced. He met a man who sold hats at a barbecue in Pasadena and settled on the fact that he could do it, too. Nearly two decades later, Wade can still shape a cowboy hat with the best in the West. “Really I ain’t bragging. It just comes naturally to me,” he said.So when my editor, Cassie Pence, needed a cowboy hat for her Western-themed wedding rehearsal dinner, we knew Wade was just the man. An array of styles and fabrics to choose from, did she want a tight-weave palm leaf, black Beaver/wool blend or felt? A tycoon/John Wayne-style, which comes to a point at the front of the crown, the Gus (“Lonesome Dove”), which lips at the crown or a cattlemen with an even indent from front to back?

She decided on a pinto-colored tight-weave palm cattleman with a beautiful two-tone brown band that complemented her strawberry blonde locks. Once she picked out the right hat, she had to find the right size. Wade fitted her a size seven. It should rest a finger above to the top of your ears. It was still a little too big, so he padded the inside with a little hat-fitting tape. “Now, I’ll shape it up so you don’t look like you’re flying away,” Wade told her. He recommended he turn up the sides and leave it round in the middle, which is flattering for most women. As a general rule, if you have a slim face, he said, it should curl up on the sides. If you have a fuller face, it should lay flat.He fired up his small Jiffy steamer, made for shaping hats, and got the brim wet with a spray bottle before placing it in the vapor stream spitting into the hot, dusty air. It bent with ease.”You can get water and play with it by yourself. A lot of people don’t know how. It just comes with the territory,” he said of his skill. He put it on Cassie’s head, a stunning cowboy bride.

“Most people get into wearing a hat just like boots. They get up in the morning and just put ’em on.” he said. “It’s just somethin’ I do. My daddy did it.” A smile emerges over his mouth as Wade remembers his father’s “Sunday-go-meetin’ hat,” a short-brim black Stetson he only wore to church. “Not just anyone can say they’re a cowboy and be one,” Wade said. “It’s all in the heart and soul. I guess it’s the way you’re raised, a lot of it.”

Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached at 748-2939 or laball@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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