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APHA

For the Love of ‘Caboys’

Lavonna “Shorty” Kroger infuses a love of family, her clients and the Western life into her custom-made cowboy hats.

By Rachel Griffin

“The thing about buck stitch is that it’s got to be pointed at the end,” Lavonna “Shorty” Kroger said.

Standing in her Oklahoma City Stockyards shop amidst rows of the finest crafted cowboy hats, she points to a ruby-toned leather strip darting in and out of a coal-black brim’s edge. A minor detail to most, perhaps, but the small slit is of utmost importance to the discerning owner of Shorty’s Caboy Hattery.

“Most folks don’t realize it, but if you don’t stitch it the right way—if you just punch a hole—it doesn’t look right,” she said. “That’s how they did it in the old days, and that point is how you know if someone actually knows what they’re doing or not.”

Stepping into the craft with no prior hat-making knowledge, it’s with this shrewd attention to detail, coupled with steadfast persistence and familial support, that Shorty shaped her businessand product into a symbol of Western-world excellence for more than 30 years.

Shaped by Life

Surrounded by horses and ranch hands in her childhood home of rural Northern Oklahoma, Shorty learned early how a hat can shape one’s image.

“When we’d go to town on Saturdays for groceries, I always remember the cowboys being all dressed up,” Shorty said. “I’d see them in the store with their cowboy hats on, wild rags and their britches tucked into their boots. I remember thinking, ‘Boy, I’d like to go out and be like that;’ I just like the look of it.”

As she barrel raced in junior rodeos, Shorty pulled her own hat on with pride.

“My mom would tell me I looked like an old man out in the arena with my big hat on, and I’d just tell her, ‘Mother, this is just what you wear when you rodeo.’ She just didn’t quite get it,” Shorty said. “So, when I bought the store and renovated my first hats, I made her put one on her head, too; I think she started to get it then!”

Shorty later leveraged her love for the rodeo lifestyle into a Western apparel store in the 1960s, selling cowboys all the accoutrements she’d always admired—including cowboy hats. ButShorty wasn’t inspired to create her own hats until one she treasured was destroyed.

“When my daddy passed away, my brother sent two of his hats off to a company in Texas to be cleaned so he could wear them,” she said. “When the hats came back, the company had pretty much ruined them. So my brother said, ‘For as much as you love cowboy hats, you might want to get in the hat cleaning business; I bet you could do well.’ And a light just went off in my head.”

Learning to shape hats was easy—Shorty taught herself to hand-crease felts and straws over a steaming teapot as she set up shop at rodeos—but she hit roadblocks when she sought to take her skills further.

“It took me two years just to find someone who would even talk with me on the phone about restoring and making hats, let alone sell me the equipment to do it; nobody gave advice because they didn’t want anyone in the business against them,” Shorty said.

Undeterred, Shorty scoured the U.S. in search of a teacher, only to find one locally in 1990; a craftsman cleaning and restoring hats out of his Oklahoma City home.  As fate would have it, he was selling his business. And his name was Shorty, too.

“When I approached [Shorty Barnett] about wanting to get into the business, he told me he was selling his and that he already had a buyer,” Shorty said. “I asked him when the buyer was coming, and he said 10 o’clock Monday. So I said, ‘What if they didn’t show up? Would you sell it to me?’ And he said absolutely.

“So I met with my parents and my siblings, and they helped me put the money together, and I was back out at that house at 9:30 Monday morning. I watched him pace and study his hats, and at 10:01 I said, ‘Well, if I were going to buy a business, I’d have been here early; can I write the check?’ He let me, and those people never showed up to buy it.”

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This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.

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