A man of many hats is tops in his craft Hobby pays off: 'Dirty Billy' Wickham of Detour has been making historical hats ,,for 30 years. His career began as a hobby, stemming from his childhood fascination with history.

February 10, 1996|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

Bill Wickham may not be as famous as some of the heads he has crowned, but the unusual hatmaker is as well known in Civil War re-enacting circles as the ghostly likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

"Dirty Billy," as his customers call him, reproduces historical hats ranging from Elizabethan head wear and World War II soldier caps. Union and Confederate re-enactors are among his biggest customers.

Mr. Wickham, 45, fashions his work in his Victorian-era home in the Detour, a village along Double Pipe Creek in western Carroll County, and travels the East Coast peddling his wares at living-history events.

Frequently, moviemakers call on Mr. Wickham to provide head wear for actors in historical dramas.

Martin Sheen and Sam Elliott wore his hats in the 1993 movie "Gettysburg." Patrick Swayze did the same in the television mini-series "North and South." The casts of "Tombstone," "Geronimo" and the television movie "Lincoln" also have worn Mr. Wickham's work.

More recently, Mr. Wickham has helped outfit actors in the TNT movie "Andersonville" and the feature film "Crazy Horse." But don't look for his name in the closing credits. In his business, the costumer gets the recognition.

"I've done a lot of costumed movies," Mr. Wickham said. "I did one of Custer's hats in the movie 'Son of Morning Star.' Sam Elliott sought me out through a friend. He came to my house, and I made him a hat right here on the spot while my wife made him lunch."

Mr. Wickham, who has a sixth-degree black belt and owns a martial arts studio in Frederick, has been making hats for 30 years.

It began as a hobby, stemming from his childhood fascination with history. During his collecting days -- he amassed Civil War artifacts such as uniforms, hats and haversacks -- he stumbled upon hat patterns.

"I really learned to make hats by taking stuff apart and figuring it out," Mr. Wickham recalled. "I can pick up a hat now and get a feel for the manufacturer, the time period and the quality.

Full-time business

Hatmaking has become a full-time business for Mr. Wickham in the last year. He and his wife, Fran, run a mail-order and wholesale business out of their home.

Mr. Wickham makes some hat parts from scratch. Part-timers help with lining and small parts, but Mr. Wickham does the assembling himself.

"I spend almost every waking hour in my house making head wear," Mr. Wickham said. "It gets to be a drag. I used to participate in events, play and have a good time. But the past couple of years I haven't had the time."

He estimated that he makes thousands of hats each year and said he has a three-month waiting list.

Such is his reputation that during re-enactments, his tent is usually standing-room-only. Most of his hats sell for about $75 each.

"I've got probably 15 of his hats," said Ashley Wyant, who runs a historical research company out of his Reston, Va. home.

"I think they're probably the best products on the market. I think everyone's pretty much agreed Billy's products are better than just about anybody else out there.

"Hatmaking is a pretty dead art. It takes time to turn these hats. He does it one at a time."

A stickler for details, Mr. Wickham has spent hours studying hats in museums, books and personal collections.

He reproduces hats with the same materials used in the original. He finishes each with a reproduction of a manufacturer's stamp. The hats are inconspicuously numbered and signed, lest antiques dealers mistake them for originals.

"Most of the hats I manufacture I've had myself, or I've seen them in other people's collections, or I've held them in museums," he said.

A 'natty' hat

His most popular hat is a slouch hat called a Dirty Billy Special, which features a beehive or sugar loaf crown and has a medium-width brim with a decided curl. It's a copy of a Confederate soldier's hat that was worn by some members of the 9th Mississippi Infantry in a famous photograph.

"This hat will curl no matter what you do," he said. "It's very natty and fits about anybody. It's very worn looking, looks like something the average Confederate wore. It's made a real impression on people."

So have Mr. Wickham's other hats.

"Two years ago, I would have told you you were nuts to think anyone could make a living making hats," Mr. Wickham said. "My

problem now is I just have one pair of hands."

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