There’s just something about that hat that is never as obvious to Bob Jacquart as when he tours Michigan on his annual fact-finding mission, toting a trailer filled with his new winter line, a red and black Stormy Kromer hat on his own head.
The owner of Ironwood-based Jacquart Fabric Products and its Stormy Kromer branch visits store owners each year to thank them in person and see what he can learn. He doesn’t mind (secretly even loves) that word gets out. He ends up posing in hundreds of Facebook photos with everyone wearing a Stormy Kromer, the hat invented by a railroad engineer in the late 1800s that somehow is current in today’s hunting camps and craft cocktail bars.
“I’m a little guy from a little town, but there’s sort of a ‘Dave from Wendy’s, Colonel Sanders effect’ of me owning a brand people love,” Jacquart says. “I do enjoy the role. I’m okay with it. I love people, so it’s quite easy for me to do.”
But, is it the hat, its origins, its practicality, great marketing or something more abstract that has made him a fashion celebrity of sorts while boosting hat sales from 3,000 in 2001 to around 150,000 sold today? Perhaps, it is all of the above, he and others say, plus a longing for simplicity. In the rusticity of its style, the way it’s made by hand — and in Michigan — it seems to proclaim, “I’m true to my roots,” says Bugsy Sailor, a Michigan-based blogger and self-proclaimed ambassador for the Upper Peninsula. The way it dovetails with some national clothing trends and interest in heritage brands explains the attraction, too.
In addition to growth in women’s and kids clothing lines, the newest customer is what the clothing industry calls the lumbersexual, or urban outdoorsman, according to Jacquart. It is the banker in Chicago who’d rather be at a cabin in northern Wisconsin or the Detroit banker who would rather be at a summer home in Traverse City.
“It’s a hat that puts a sixth-grade smile on your face,” he says. “It takes them to the time they were relaxed or happiest. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of that.”
The Stormy Kromer brand’s signature item: a warm and well-made line of hats notable for their trademarked ear bands made stylish by ties, flowers or signature hardware. All are made in the third-generation sewing factory at Jacquart Fabric Products, not far from Lake Superior’s southern shoreline. There, by a statue of a giant red cap, about 120 people still make the products by hand, occasionally helped by the kids who tie a bow or put on an eyelet during the popular factory tours.
If the classic hat resembles something of a marriage between a baseball cap and something a train engineer would wear, that’s exactly what it is. Stormy Kromer, whose real name was George, was a semipro baseball player in the early days of the sport. He had such a mercurial temper that “Stormy” stuck as his nickname.
Kromer also was a train engineer, and one blustery day in 1903, he returned to his Wisconsin home and his wife, Ida, frustrated that his hat would blow off whenever he stuck his head out of the train car. He asked if she could help. Ida sewed a band on his cap. When everyone at the railroad wanted one the next day, a business was born. An abridged version of the story is stitched inside the caps today.
Eventually, as the Kromers realized they had a business on their hands, those early hats made their way to customers across the Michigan border, where the hat had become a hot fashion item for elementary students in Ironwood. Gina Thorsen, Jacquart’s daughter and current brand president, says she and her sister, Kari, and their friends would pick up their solid black, oversized hats and wear them skiing. They’d collect pins from local ski hills and others out west and put them on the flap. Grownups, of course, wore them, too.
“You’d have two, a good hat for church and a work hat,” Jacquart says. “When the work hat wears out, your good hat became your work hat, and you’d get a new good hat for church. That’s how it worked.”
Jacquart bought the Stormy Kromer brand in 2001, after he learned the line would be discontinued at the Milwaukee factory where it was made. He learned 80 percent of the hats were sold within 20 miles of his Ironwood home. Already owning a busy and diverse sewing factory, he figured adding the line would help keep more people employed in slow times.
“I wore a (Stormy Kromer) hat. I had a 1942 version from my grandfather who worked for the same railroad Stormy Kromer had. I can almost guarantee my grandfather knew Stormy Kromer, so I bought the company,” Jacquart said.
Not long after, he visited a marketing firm in Milwaukee on a hunch he might have something bigger than he initially thought, He brought a 1915 picture of George and Ida Kromer, a 1942 picture of his grandfather wearing the hat and a sample.
“I said, ‘I want to do something with this. Can I?’” Jacquart recalls. “The creative director looked at me, smiled and said, ‘You don’t have a clue what you’ve got here, do you?’”
What he had was marketing gold.
Jacquart added an embroidered Kromer signature to the outside and started telling the story of the hat’s history. After a Wisconsin newspaper story about the company sale was picked up on the national wires, the brand sold three times its historic, century-old sales record. And he knew, he said, “It means more than keeping your head warm.”
The brand evolved as Jacquart’s company grew. A woman’s line was added when they found a good deal on rose pink fabric. His wife, Denise, while playing around with a hat one day, turned the ear band to the side and added a flower. That sample, stuffed away in a closet, became the signature hat of the women’s line.
People now send in photos — lots of photos, Gina adds — of various hat rituals. There are groomsmen wearing hats, bridesmaids too, atop their cute dresses, and others who were married in theirs. There are the Christmas photos of everyone in their hat and more poignant stories of people burying fathers or grandfathers in theirs. Gov. Rick Snyder’s daughter sent her senior picture — taken in her Stormy Kromer, and there’s a nearby hunting camp with a ritual through which you wear a red hat the first year you’re invited, and after that, you can wear black. Then there is the intriguing family Thanksgiving invitation saying you would only be allowed to come if wearing your Stormy Kromer hat.
Wear one in public, and you’ll get it.
Gina says she often is stopped in airports across the country when she wears her hat, by people who want to share the story of finding their first hat. Retailer Kevin Begola, owner of Bridge Street Exchange in Linden, says he compares the reaction he gets to Jeep people, who give two fingers up to each other to say hello. “When you see someone else with a Stormy Kromer, they come up to you and say, ‘Nice Kromer!’”
The next goal? Matching sales outside of the state with those in Michigan, where buyers by far have the strongest connection with this made-in-state brand. They’re thinking big, Gina says, like becoming on par with brands like Columbia and North Face. But in the meantime, Jacquart is reveling in what he already has been able to create, most particularly, the recent chance to bring a gift — a hat a year for life — to a 15-month old Royal Oak boy named Kromer.
“Can you imagine that we’ve gotten this brand so big that somebody is naming their kid after it?” he asked, no doubt with that sixth-grade smile on his face. “I’m just a small businessman in the U.P. There are a lot of dogs named Harley. And to think I’ve got one little kid named Kromer.” ≈
Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer who has visited nearly every corner of Michigan.
The engineer’s cap: the original
That a baseball cap became the basis for the railroad engineer’s cap — and Stormy Kromer — is due in part to the symbiosis between baseball and railroading in the mid-1800s, at least according to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.
The first professional baseball league was born in 1871, two years after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. That was handy for baseball players who, by the early 1900s, were moving regularly by train between cities in the eastern United States, cities that pretty much had professional teams.
Perhaps inspired by famous passengers such as Babe Ruth — or to engage in a little bonding and recreation time — employees of railroads formed employee teams. Those teams got so popular they evolved into formal leagues and championships.
George “Stormy” Kromer went beyond playing baseball as a hobby and managed teams while also working for the railroad. He was known for being a little unusual, notes Gina Thorsen, president of the Stormy Kromer line of Jacquart Fabric Products. He’d have players stare at the sun for long periods to better catch fly balls or ride railroad cars without holding on to improve their balance. The modifications his wife, Ida, made to keep the baseball cap on his head while operating his train on the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company line became such a legendary story in some circles that the vintage children’s book line, Little Golden Books, published a story about the hat’s invention called “Mr. Puffer Bill.”
According to the Treasury of Railroad Folklore, Ida made that first hat with what she had at hand — blue and white pinstripe pillow ticking. When Stormy went back to work the next day and colleagues clamored for one of their own, the engineer’s cap was born.