When Joella Gammage Torres first met Willie Nelson, she was eight years old and sitting on top of a chest-style Coca-Cola machine in the hallway of her family’s custom hat shop, Texas Hatters. Her father, Manny Gammage, walked in the back door with a companion who was hiding under a serape. She thought the bearded man with long braids was a drifter until she was formally introduced. Nelson was just one of many musicians and celebrities who sought out her father’s work from the seventies through the early nineties. Perhaps one of Gammage’s biggest supporters was one of the original “cosmic cowboys.” “My dad always said that it was Jerry Jeff Walker that kind of introduced him to Willie and Waylon and all the rest of the boys, as he put it,” recalls Torres. Now 56, she has run the shop since her father’s death in 1995.
The family business started with her grandfather, Marvin Gammage, who became a master hatter in 1926 after apprenticing at a shop in Houston. He started his own custom hat store, which changed locations and names several times, his son Manny joining him in hat-making along the way. When the shop moved to Austin in 1965, Manny suggested one final name change. “He said, ‘Why don’t you just call it Texas Hatters because you’re never going to move out of Texas?’” Torres says. “That’s when it stuck and became Texas Hatters.”
In 1980, Texas Hatters moved from the chaotic intersection of West Oltorf Street and South Lamar to a larger space in Buda with more parking. In 2006, Torres and husband David Torres, who had been one of her father’s apprentices, relocated the shop to Lockhart. One of the highlights of the three-thousand-square-foot space is the mini-museum—two large hallways covered with photos of celebrities from Ronald Reagan to Robert Duvall wearing custom hats. The displays also include a series of hats, including ones worn by famed one-legged cowboy Hackberry Johnson, Donald Sutherland in the movie The Hunley, and Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer, the late Paul English.
Every hat is custom-made by hand from fur felt, Panama fabric, or a combination of both. Torres still works with the same techniques and equipment used by her father and grandfather, including century-old crown irons and hat blocks. “We call ourselves a working museum,” she says. In this short film, which includes archival footage of the store’s history, you’ll get a deeper look at the story and process behind every Texas Hatters creation—hats that can be passed down for generations.