Silver-Tip Hat Company continues to grow after more than 40 years in central Idaho | TheFencePost.com

Silver-Tip Hat Company continues to grow after more than 40 years in central Idaho

Carolyn White

With 42 years of experience as a hatmaker, Randy Priest of the Silver-Tip Hat Company in Donnelly, Idaho has a real eye for what looks good on people.

His hats are so transforming they attracted the likes of country star Lyle Lovett, singer Natalie Imbruglia and actors Sam Shepard and Scott Glenn. The late Steve McQueen's widow, Barbi, also has a Silver-Tip topper. Their pictures are on display in Priest's showroom.

Raised outside a Blackfoot Indian reservation in Pocatello, Idaho, Priest became interested in head gear early on. As a teen.

"I always wore some type of hat. For fun I used to shop second-hand stores to pick up old ones," he said.

“I could walk into a restaurant, look at the row of hats that were hanging on the wall and tell who was there by those creases.”

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To recondition those hats, he tore them apart, soaked the sections in hot water and remodeled them using broomsticks, which helped with stretching.

Priest noticed how the hats of his friends had special, distinct creases.

"I could walk into a restaurant, look at the row of hats that were hanging on the wall and tell who was there by those creases," he said. Every hat, to him, became a statement of the individual who wore it.

So he began to make money by hitting pawn shops at the reservation. The men there bought new hats with their paychecks, he said, and when they ran out of money, they pawned them. So he bought the secondhand hats, reshaped, reconditioned and resold them.

After he moved to Idaho City, Idaho his skills really took off. He met another hatmaker from Boise who told him he was a natural and gave him tips, some suppliers and even a crown iron, a tool to shape the crown of a hat.

He found an empty dry cleaner's building in Challis where he set up shop.

"It was perfect," he said. "There was dry fluid on hand there to clean hats with, plenty of racks to hang them, on and shelves for my collection of hat blocks."

In 1996, though, Priest left the perfect building and moved to McCall, where he opened a hat shop in a shared space with a jeweler.

He eventually moved back to Donnelly, Idaho. About a decade ago, he bought his current building there — a 1907 bank on Main Street. Now, it's not filled with coins, bills and bartering, though. It's filled with hats, silk scarves and Western paintings.

Customers bring Priest materials like snake skin, porcupine quills, bear claws, bones and other items to use as decorations. He also gets beaded hat bands, moccasins and jewelry from local crafters.

Although Priest works with felt, leather and suede, his favorite material is a 50/50 blend of beaver and rabbit hair. During summer, palm leaf hats are the best sellers. He buys them with a flat brim and open crown, dips them in water, and creases them in whatever way a person wants.

He also used to build hats out of a material called Donkey Belly, short-shorn desert sheep hair infused with wasp wax and mesquite gum.

He witnessed the 400-year-old Donkey Belly weaving technique 25 years ago while wintering in Mexico. Two old hatters, "who built a lot of hats," in the ancient city of Oaxaca noticed his interest and agreed to train him. Unfortunately, both have passed away, and Priest can no longer get the material needed.

He said he wished he would have recorded the men working at the craft.

Even without the weaving technique, Priest can still accommodate to any request — whether it's an everyday or very unique style. The Silver-Tip Hat shop is a place where old and new friends stop in regularly to pull up chairs, gather around the wood stove during central Idaho's long winters and — of course — try on hats.

It's all just fine for Randy Priest.

"I love meeting people," he said, grinning, "and I meet lots of them. If you want to get ahead, get a hat." ❖

More info

Silver-Tip Hat Company is located at 209 N. Main Street, in Donnelly, Idaho, 94 miles north of Boise on Hwy 55. The phone number is (208) 315-4299 and website is http://www.silvertiphatcompany.com.