So, what's all the flap about?

Entrepreneur grabs nostalgia by the brim by reviving Kromer

March 09, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

SALT LAKE CITY -- Elmer J. Fudd wears one. So do the snowboarding dudes on Rocky Mountain slopes and Harley riders in Wisconsin. The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park is awaiting delivery of hers, as is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank -- in his alma mater's colors.

So much fuss over something so simple. Panels of wool hand-stitched together to seal out winter's worst, with pull-down flaps to keep ears toasty. A hat with a name right out of Americana central casting: Stormy Kromer.

Holding one in your hands is a trip down memory lane. It's a mac-and-cheese dinner. It's a toboggan ride with your friends. It's...

"Hot chocolate for your head," says Bob Jacquart, completing the thought as he sits in the middle of the bustling Outdoors Retailer trade show.

In a Polartec, Gore-Tex, digital world, this native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is peddling old-fashioned analog.

Jacquart bought the rights to make the cap, a decision he made more with his heart than his head, which has a Kromer on top.

George "Stormy" Kromer was a semi-pro baseball player and a railroad engineer for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad at the turn of the last century. When he got tired of losing his hat to the gusts whistling through the locomotive cab, he gave one of his old wool ball caps to his wife, Ida, and asked her to sew on some ear flaps.

The Kromer was born in 1903, and proved so popular that the inventor quit railroading and moved his growing business from Kaukauna, Wis., to Milwaukee in 1918.

He ran the company until 1965, the same year Little Golden Book came out with its telling of the Kromer story, Mr. Puffer Bill.

But over the years, the wool Kromer took a backseat to a cotton version with polka dots that became a favorite of union welders working on oil rigs in the North Atlantic.

Europeans loved the '60s "mod" look and it wasn't long before the company was selling half again as many cotton hats as wool ones, with the overseas market accounting for 40 percent of summer sales.

By the fall of 2001, Kromer executives were convinced that the company would be better off without the winter hat. Retail shops got the word, and the last hats were shipped to Tomahawk Surplus Store in Wisconsin that November.

Responsible employers

Ironwood, pop. 6,000, knows winter.

The town that calls itself "Michigan's Western Gateway" averages 200 inches of snow from October through April, and locals joke that no one in town buys a used snow blower.

A 1938 snowstorm dumped so much powder on the town that people turned second-floor windows into their foyers and merchants carved tunnels from the street to their front doors.

Folks up there speak with an accent that is part Jesse Ventura, part Marge Gunderson, the police chief in Fargo.

Mining was the industrial heart of Ironwood, boosting the area's population to nearly 30,000 in its heyday. But the iron deposits tapped out about the time Kromers were moving from wool to cotton, and Ironwood's biggest export became its young people.

The Jacquart family is part of the fabric of the town, literally. Bob Jacquart's father started a company in 1958 that sewed canvas covers for boats and trucks. Later, the Jacquart Fabric Co. added a line of dog beds that Consumer Digest labeled a "best buy."

People in town are quick to point out that the Jacquarts have never laid off a soul and the owner keeps an eye out for the welfare of the single parents on the payroll and workers who are down on their luck.

Although the boss's parking space has a BMW in it, he prefers his 1996 pick-up truck.

"My life is wonderful. I've been married 29 years and have two wonderful children," says Jacquart. "I take care of my people and they take care of me."

With 190 employees, he is one of the largest employers in a town that doesn't have a bright economic future. Jacquart knows that if the Kromer catches on, he'll be able to put more neighbors to work.

Rescuing the Kromer

Being a hat maker was the last thing on Jacquart's mind when he stopped by Ben's Place, a local coffee shop, in November 2001.

While picking at his order, he overheard a couple of merchants discussing the demise of the Kromer.

"My heart's pounding. I've worn a red Kromer all my life and I couldn't believe that I could be the Kromer maker," recalls Jacquart.

He made an appointment to see Richard Grossman, company chairman and only the second owner of the patent, in his office in Milwaukee.

"We just talked. I wrote up a contract. I didn't even show it to an attorney," says Jacquart.

Grossman gave him mailing and supplier lists and allowed Jacquart to videotape the Kromer operation. On Nov. 20, 2001 -- coincidentally, the anniversary of Kromer's death -- Jacquart took over the company with his 84-year-old father and 24-year-old daughter at his side.

The plan was to finish making dog beds for the Christmas season and then spend the rest of the winter teaching the employees to make Kromers.

The winter also gave Jacquart time to fret about his purchase.

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