Hats off to a fine old city tradition

DAN RODRICKS

November 17, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

It was a straw hat -- the texture and weight of lightly starched linen, the color of vanilla ice cream, and folded in half. On the inside, "Ecuador" was stamped in light blue ink.

The middle-aged man behind the counter, John Macas, put on eyeglasses, took the hat from the bag and examined the material. Immediately, he yelled for his father, Roberto Macas, to come up from the basement. It was the old man who would block the hat. No one else could be trusted. And certainly no one besides Roberto Macas, founder of Ecuador Hat Co. on Fayette Street, should have the pleasure.

Old Mr. Macas -- he was 76 then -- walked into the shop, a little bird of a man with tiny gnarled hands that had cut, stitched and blocked straw hats for more than 65 years.

He reached for the hat, pulled it close to his face, close enough to smell the straw, and examined it the way a gem cutter examines a diamond. His eyes widened. He mumbled something in Spanish. He ran his fingers along the brim. His son smiled at his father's intensity and excitement. This hat was indeed a finely woven hat, the likes of which old Mr. Macas had not seen in ages. A man could no longer buy such a hat.

And still it was not blocked!

The old man was wildy curious. How much did I want for it? Would I make a trade. Where on earth had this hat come from?

Every time I went to his shop -- to get the hat cleaned and its brim sharpened -- I had to tell old Mr. Macas the story:

A friend, Neil Grauer, had given it to me. He had received it from Milton Eisenhower, the late president of the John Hopkins University who, among other positions, had served as special ambassador to Latin America during his brother's administration. The hat had been a gift to Eisenhower from the president of a Central American nation. It had sat, unblocked, in a chest for more than two decades. Grauer loved hats, but this Panama had been cut too large, so he offered it to me, the swell-headed.

Before I got it, Grauer had taken the hat to the Ecuador Hat Co. and the Macas family. Where else?

The Ecuador Hat Co. had been one of several companies that together produced, during the 1920s, more than 300,000 dozen straw hats a year. Baltimore was once known as "Home of the Straws," and there were more than 3,000 master benchmen, like old Mr. Macas, who could take a limp piece of straw or felt and shape it into a finished hat.

It has been years since Ecuador Hat Co. actually made hats. The last benchman retired in 1979, and old Mr. Macas, who had made thousands of them with his tiny hands, stayed in the shop to help his son with the cleaning and blocking end of a hat business that continues today.

Mr. Macas died Sunday at the age of 88. His funeral mass will be celebrated Thursday morning at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, Wolfe and Lombard streets.

Mr. Macas was one of the last of the old masters. Each time I took that fabulous Panama hat to his store for cleaning, he warned me to take care of it. He wondered if I knew how lucky I was.

This hat had been made the old-fashioned way, he said, with the young sprouts of the wild plants that grew in the valleys of Ecuador. Mr. Macas had come from a village, called Cuenca, in one such valley. His ancestry was Incan and Castillian.

By the age of 10, he had learned to make Panama hats from his mother, Rosa. He worked for an American businessman who had established a factory in the village. When he was 19, Mr. Macas traveled to New York with his older brother, Jose; they had been recruited to work in a company that manufactured thousands of straws to keep up with a national craze. They moved to Baltimore to work for M.S. Levy and opened their own shop in 1929. Mr. Macas traveled back to Cuenca, married a village girl named Maria Teresa, and took her to Baltimore.

They had a long happy life making hats.

Until the business declined.

Until men stopped wearing Panama-style hats, and the ones who continued to wear hats settled for crude imitations of the fine old toppers from Ecuador. That's why I was always glad to reintroduce old Mr. Macas to my hat. The feel of it, the smell of it, the shape of it all reminded him of his wonderful yesterday.

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