(Reading time 6 minutes)
Whoever heard of Arco, Montana? I looked before writing this story and I can’t even find it on the map. But, I know it’s there. At least it was in 1969, when my wife Winnie and I were enjoying our first motor trip across United States, in our 1969 Ford convertible. We drove with the top down, weather permitting, a good part of the way. It was an exciting trip to remember. Everything we saw was a new experience for us.
It was Friday afternoon. We were heading east on our return trip from Seattle, back to Philadelphia. This was flat land area, as I remember it. We came upon what was a one block long town. It would remind you of a western movie town. There was a boardwalk in front of the frame built stores on each side of the street, just like in Gunsmoke on TV. One big difference; the boardwalk for the block of stores was about 6 feet above the street level, with steps going up to the boardwalk in front of each store. It would also remind you of an old fishing village, except it was in the plains of Montana. I asked a merchant, why it was so high off of the street. “Snow”, he said. “This is Montana”. He also said, “You can’t never say you’re from Montana ‘lessen you lived here for at least 20 winters.”
We parked our car in front of George’s General Store and Butcher Shop. It was a really beautiful day. There was a heavyset feller standing outside the shop, at the top of the steps, smoking a cigar. Both hands were in his pockets under his white, slightly stained, butcher’s apron, that covered his noticeably portly, rotund, six-foot plus stature. He wore cowboy boots, overalls with shoulder straps, a plaid shirt and a strikingly handsome Stetson hat. From the bottom of the steps, I looked up and asked, “Where did you ever get that hat? I’ve been looking everywhere for a hat like that.” He looked down from the boardwalk and asked, “What size you wear friend? I just may have one your size in here. Come on in and lemme’ see.” He sounded like right out of a Gunsmoke movie.
We went into the store and saw shelves with boxes, from floor to ceiling. They were the full length of the store, at least 40 feet long. There was a traveling ladder on wheels to climb up and fetch a hat box, or whatever other merchandise was stacked up there. He climbed up and selected a box from his collection. He blew off about 20 years of brown dust, before bringing it down and handing it to me. I opened the box, and there it was; a Western Royal Stetson hat, brand new in a cellophane bag to protect it. He said, “Try in on friend. If’n you like it, I’ll let ya have it for what we paid fer it a few years back, when we bought a supply. We used to sell lots of hats back in the twenties and thirties to the ranchers. Then them easterners came here to work for the oil company, and I don’t hardly sell none no more. I just want to get rid of ‘em. Some, like this one, has been sittin’ there since the depression in 1929.”
I tried in on and it was like it was made for me. It was perfect. My dream hat. “I’ll take it”, I said. The cowboy butcher said, “Lemme see what it cost me.” He looked under the sweatband, removed a tag and said, “Friend, if’n you’ll part with $17.00 the hat’s yours.” Disbelieving, but agreeable, we shook on it and I walked out with the Western Royal Stetson that looked brand spankin’ new. The price tag is still under the band to show people. I’ve been wearing it since 1969. It’s still in excellent shape, save a few spots and a moth hole. It’s the best hat I have, or ever will have. Now I know why westerners pay such high prices for hats of this quality. They last forever. This one could be over 80 years old. I’ve had it 45 years so far. We shook hands and bid him farewell.
About 20 miles down the road, after we left Arco, I exclaimed to Winnie that I made a serious stupid mistake. I should have bought his entire inventory of hats, and shipped them back home. My wife Winnie said, “Well, turn around, go back and buy them.” We made a 180 turn and headed back to Arco.
It was starting to get dark. We pulled up in front of George’s General Store and Butcher Shop. I walked up the steps. There was a sign on the door that read, “Closed. Will be back Monday.” An old timer on a rocking chair next door said, “Charlie went home. It’s Friday, and he won’t be back ‘til Monday.” “I thought his name was George”, I said. “Naw”, said the old timer. “That was George’s brother, crazy Charlie. He’s taking care of the store. George is in the hospital. The say he might be going senile. Charley has already been senile and back again. There’s no telling what he will do next. “Say friend, that hat looks mighty smart on you! Ya’ buy that from crazy Charlie?”
That hat now sells for well over $595.00