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You can find everything “cowboy” in about a two-square-mile area in historic Stockyards City in south Oklahoma City. The area is home to more than century-old architecture, cattle auctions and famous steakhouses.
In the heart of it all is Shorty’s Caboy Hattery, which has been owned and operated for the past 31 years by Lavonna “Shorty” Koger.
A small cowbell rings as customers, or friends as Shorty calls them, walk through the front door of the Hattery. Sunlight coming in through barred windows adds another layer of warmth to the welcomes from the staff. Colorful western hats and memorabilia from the past 30 years cover the walls of the large, open showroom. In the middle is an island where Shorty’s hatters fit, reshape, customize and clean western hats.
A hattery is a type of artisan shop where expert hatmakers take raw hat bodies – which look like rough, hairy cones – and refine them into a water-resistant hat that won’t lose its shape and is custom-fit to the head it was made for.
“We go through a lot of steps. There’s probably 20-something steps to make a hat,” said Shorty.
Shorty’s hats don’t come cheap. From the fine furs used to make hats, like beaver and mink to the 100-year-old machines and Shorty’s labor, a custom hat starts off costing just shy of $1,000.
“We make a mink-beaver hat that’s $2,000,” said Shorty. “It’s better than a pure beaver.”
Beavers have been harvested for their fur since the early 1600s, when felt top hats were all the rage in Europe.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, the demand for felt hats decimated the American beaver population by the hundreds of millions. Luckily, for the beavers who escaped trappers, silk hats replaced felt and today, beaver populations in North America are recovering.
More than 400 years later, the style may have changed, but the desire for fine, felt hats has not. Shorty said because beavers live in the water, their hair is naturally water resistant.
Miss Rodeo USA Brooke Wallace said having a quality hat is important in her industry.
“You can’t be walking around with a hat that looks all wonky,” Wallace said. “We gotta represent our western heritage and our industry… it’s important that [the hats] sharp and they look nice.”
Shorty goes so far as to say a hat can make or break a competitor in the horse-show world.
“Your hat is the first thing [judges] see,” she said. “If you look like a dork, you’re gonna get scored like a dork – which is zero!”
Shorty said she has seen riders spend $250,000 on a horse, $100,000 on a saddle and just $20 on a hat, as she shakes her head.
Where It All Began
Shorty said she developed her interest in Western fashion from watching famous cowboy actors, like Randolph Scott and Ben Johnson, walking the streets of Fairfax, Oklahoma, where she grew up.
“On Saturdays, mom and daddy would go to town and buy groceries and I would stand out on the streets and watch ‘em,” Shorty says. “They were dressed up – britches in their boot-tops, cool lookin’ shirts, wild rags, cowboy hats, and I was just intrigued from that little on.”
Shorty wasn’t raised on a ranch. Her father was an oil-field worker, and later the family raised cattle, hogs and wheat on 100 acres they rented for $40 a month.
Years later, when her father passed away, she and her siblings sent their father’s hat off to be cleaned and were broken-hearted when it came back ruined. That is when her brother encouraged her to open a hat-cleaning business.
“I used to have a Western store in the ’60s and I’ve shaped a lot of hats and I thought, ‘man, that sounds like a great idea,’” Shorty said.
Today, Shorty’s Caboy Hattery is the only female-owned and operated hattery in the business – which is extremely rare, as true hatters are few and far between and most are men. She said she has caught flack from women who own hatteries with their husbands, but the difference is she has built her business by herself.
“I didn’t have anybody with this business, so I can say I’m the only custom woman hatmaker in the world,” Shorty said.
Shorty endured sexism along the way also.
“Men – cowboys, would come up at the shows and say I’d never end up a hatmaker,” Shorty said. “There was a man [who] came in[to] my booth I thought my sister was gonna whip him for saying, ‘You’re never gonna survive in this – this is a man’s world!’”
‘Quite An Honor’
She never gave up and didn’t let her critics affect her.
In 2003, Shorty was nominated to be in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. But that was all the news she heard of her nomination, eventually figuring she didn’t fit in the category of women the museum was looking for.
Nearly 20 years later, in the fall of 2020, news broke that Shorty was among the year’s class of inductees.
“Now, I’m fitting in the category and I don’t know what to do with it,” Shorty said. “This has been quite an honor, kinda makes me cry.”
Madison Ward, the public engagement manager for the Hall of Fame, said the induction process is rigorous and can take years, but they are very excited to finally induct Shorty.
“Women’s stories were not told – especially in the Western lifestyle,” Ward said. “You hear about men on ranches and men at rodeos, but all the effort behind the scenes, and sometimes in the spotlight, weren’t being told as much about women.”
Ward says the different stories and artifacts gathered through the honorees tell stories that otherwise, would never be brought to the spotlight.
The 2021 induction of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame will take place on October 26 at the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to Shorty, this year’s class includes former Oklahoma resident and country music star Miranda Lambert, the late artist Pop Chalee, roper Lari Dee Guy and equestrian and Olympic medalist Kathryn Kusner.
(Press release courtesy of KOSU.org).