Fall colors

Sharna Johnson

In other parts of the country, the first sign of changing seasons is often the changing color of the leaves, but in eastern New Mexico, one of the first signs is the changing of the hats.

As the temperature drops in the fall months, cowboys traditionally don black, felt hats, putting away their white or light-colored straw hats for the winter.

For some cowboys, the trigger is Labor Day, marking the end of summer, said Luis Saenz, who creases hats at Joe’s Boot Shop.

Similarly, Easter acts as a marker for felt hats to go in storage and straw hats to come out.

Others, typically working cowboys, wait for a change in temperature to switch out their hats, Saenz said.

When it comes time to change seasons, Saenz said customers may come in to buy new hats, which can range from around $60 to upwards of $5,000.

“When somebody buys a hat, they’re picky about it,” Saenz said.

A lot of people also keep the same hat for years, he said, bringing it in to be cleaned so they can store it fresh through the winter.

Clovis hat maker Chris Moreno said a hat is a tool and, for a true cowboy, has lots of practicality to it.

“My hat only comes off when I get ready to go to bed,” he said with a laugh. Moreno said he personally wears his felt hat year around but many people change back and forth.

“It’s just an old tradition that people have been doing for years and years … (They do it) anywhere there’s a cowboy with a cowboy hat on,” Moreno said.

Felt keeps the head warm, repels rain and snow, and absorbs heat from the sun, while the straw hats are lighter, vented and reflect the summer sun.

“A good hat protects from the elements. It shades you from the sun,” Moreno said. “Old cowboys used to water their horses out of it … You can fan a fire with it or fan your face with it.”

Moreno said he and his wife and sons make hats the old-fashioned way, one at a time using equipment from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Each hat is unique to its wearer, and each wearer has his or her unique preferences.

Felt versus straw is almost purely temperature driven, said San Skinner, owner of Portales’ Skinner’s Western Wear.

“A lot of people wear a felt on all year long, but it’s still too hot out (right now),” he said.

Skinner said typically cowboys from warmer regions such as south Texas or Mexico will almost exclusively wear the light-colored straw hats, while cowboys from the north tend to wear dark felt year-round.

Curry County Undersheriff Wesley Waller said he too follows the temperature rule when deciding to change hats.

Waller said he comes from a family of “cowboys and cops” and has always worn a hat.

“I was born with one on,” he said laughing.

With about seven hats in his collection, all in various stages of use, Waller said he is particular.

When he gets a new hat, it becomes the new dress hat and the others are rotated as work hats. If properly cared for, he said a felt hat can last years.

A straw hat lasts one or two seasons depending on the type of work you’re doing, he said.

“I recall my dad teaching me how to shape and crease hats after he would buy my brother and I new ones,” Waller said, explaining he cleans them himself and then stores them in bags so they don’t get dusty in the off season.

Waller said if he had a choice, he would wear felt all year, preferring the weight and the feel of a felt hat.