A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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Smithbilt Hats

When Judah Shumiatcher got married in 1953, everyone was very well hatted. The groom and his entourage looked particularly smart. Their high-peaked grey fedoras, with broad black bands, rivalled even the bride's head dress."Hats are romantic," says Judah Shumiatcher. "When a person wears a good hat, with a good size brim that frames the face there is nothing that makes them feel better."

For Judah Shumiatcher, the romance of hats goes beyond considerations of style. He is just as passionate, perhaps more, about the process of hat making. Why this heart-felt attachment to hats? Hats are Judah's history, and his inheritance.

In 1919, Judah Shumiatcher's father, Morris Shumiatcher, started the Smithbilt Hat Company in Calgary, Alberta. It is a company that is a poignant symbol of the immigrant experience in Canada--of starting over, building a new life through a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Smithbilt has become the symbol of Western hospitality -- the quintessential Canadian cowboy hat, recognized to this day across the country and around the world.

Morris immigrated to Canada from Russia, with his father, in 1909. Soon after they arrived and settled in Calgary, they changed their name. It was an event shared by many immigrants of the time. For the Shumiatchers, keeping the 'S' with the name 'Smith' seemed good enough. "My father wasn't adverse to this," recalls Judah. "He thought it was a good idea. That to come over was a good start, a new land and what's wrong with a new name?"

Morris Smiths' first job in Calgary was at a sawmill, but he had dreams of starting something of his own, of making a contribution to his new country. So, as the story has been told and retold over the years, it was sometime in 1919 that Morris went off to the library in search of inspiration. After looking at some photographs of hats and then reading up on hat manufacturing, inspiration struck.

Morris' next stop was the bank for some financing. He needed a $300 loan to convert Calgary Hat Works, then a cleaning and blocking establishment, into a hat manufacturer and retailer. The bank refused him the money because he had no collateral, and suggested that Morris's brother Harry could co-sign a loan. Harry had a successful business only a few blocks down the street selling newspapers and magazines: Harry's News. Morris was a bit indignant at first, if his signature wasn't good enough then forget it. "But the next day he was back," recalls his son Judah. "He had reconsidered and of course Harry did sign for him and he had the $300. Within one year he was manufacturing hats from beginning to end. By 1929 Smithbilt Hats was a bonafide company."

Morris Smith ran the Smithbilt Hat factory and associated retail stores in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia through the hard times of the Depression and the Second World War. He produced and sold mostly fedoras. But then he switched to producing a western style when the cowboy hat was becoming more and more popular.

In the summer of 1946, Morris made a decision about business and style that would guarantee him a place in Canadian history. "The Stampede Board had decided it would be a wonderful idea if Calgarians could be encouraged to wear cowboy hats during the stampede," recalls Judah. "They came to Dad and talked about it. Dad thought about this and said, 'Well, there is really only one way this can go. All the way.'"

Hats in light pastel colours were all the rage at the time. But Morris wanted to take this trend to the limit. "I'm going to get a white that is a pure sparkling white," he said. "That's the kind of felt that I'm going to order and see what happens." Morris ordered enough white felt to make 18 western hats. Calgary rancher and oilman Bill Herron bought four of the white hats for his family to wear in the Stampede parade. The rest sold out in a single afternoon(1).

The following year Smithbilt made 240 white cowboy hats for the Stampede. And they sold as fast as the original 18(2)."It was strictly on a hunch," remembers Judah. "The population just grabbed them. And so it was established then in 1947 that the white hat was a winner."

In 1948, Smithbilt's white cowboy hat went national at the Grey Cup game in Toronto. "The Calgary Stampeders came across Canada wearing their white hats, and that was a special occasion," says Judah. Judah was going to school in Montreal and his cousin Maurice was in Toronto. "My father suggested that perhaps if he sent some hats out that there might be demand for them in Toronto," Judah remembers. "And so of course we agreed to that."

The hats were donned by many at the game, including, of course, Judah and his cousin Maurice. When the game was won by the Stampeders, the two cousins were part of an ecstatic Calgarian cheering section that rushed the field and tore down the victorious goalposts.

Among the Calgarians with their trademark white hats at the Grey Cup game was city alderman, Don Mackay. When Mackay later became mayor of Calgary in 1949, he began offering white hats as gifts to visiting celebrities. By the time Mackay left office in 1959, the hat that Smith built had become an internationally recognized sign of western hospitality(3). To this day, on the walls at the Smithbilt factory hangs pictures of such notables as Mikhail Gorbachev and Wayne Gretsky sporting the sparkling white cowboy hat. "In fact," says Judah Shumiatcher "When Prince Phillip came through town for a third time, and was presented with a white hat, he said, 'Oh, not another one.'"

The ultimate moment of pride and joy for the Smithbilt, however, came in 1988. "That was the greatest honour of all," says Judah. "When Calgary was host to the Winter Olympics, our hats were worn by the Canadian athletes at the opening ceremonies...I'll never forget the look of the Canadian team walking into the stadium with their white hats on. They looked so handsome. And they were. They created a tremendous impact all over the world."

Judah Shumiatcher became the proprietor of Smithbilt when his father, Morris Shumiatcher died in 1958(4). Morris died a Shumiatcher, rather than a Smith, after a lifetime of his name, back and forth. Morris first considered changing his name back to Shumiatcher when many of his siblings were doing the same. He decided to make the change to Shumiatcher in his private life, and retain the Smith name for business purposes.

But his friends told him he was crazy to change his name. They all knew him as Smith. And furthermore, the Smith name was associated with the famous Smithbilt Hats. Morris agreed, and changed his name back to Smith. But only for a few years. He was soon calling himself Morris Shumiatcher again(5).

"There is so much history there. There are so many memories," Judah says of the Smithbilt story, and perhaps of the Shumiatcher story as well. Judah has hung onto Smithbilt, the family company, despite his own life-long career in architecture.

"I've kept Smithbilt because it was a viable firm and it was interesting work...It was like a family even inside the factory. When you make something good, you are proud of it. To let it go? No, that was really quite unthinkable," Judah says. "I guess for me, the Smithbilt story is an example of how an immigrant family, coming over with just big dreams, can do something fulfilling and make an impact, a positive contribution, to their new home."


The Shumiatcher Saga, by Brian Brennan, Calgary Herald, March 8-10, 1997.

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