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Movie milliner

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You might call Tom Hirt a throwback to a bygone era -- when wranglers and cowboys took care of business with their bare hands.

Hirt continues that tradition as a hat maker who, working out of a small shop on his Penrose ranch 40 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, makes superior-quality beaver felt hats one at a time by hand. He has designed custom hats for movie stars Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott and Sharon Stone. His movie credits include Tombstone, The Quick and the Dead, Conagher and many others.

Each hat is handmade from start to finish. The crowns are hand-formed over old-fashioned wooden blocks -- some original style blocks date back more than 100 years -- brims are flanged, sanded, pounced and finished by hand.

"Even if you're stuck working in an office somewhere, locked away in front of a computer, if you put on your cowboy hat, somehow you connect with that sense of freedom: I don't need anyone. I don't need social security. I don't need indoor plumbing. I can take care of myself," he said.

Hirt credits the movies -- "the image of the cowboy, alone, on his horse, riding on the open range, wind in his face" -- for making him who he is.

"Definitely, too many hours in front of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry on TV and movies molded my cowboy destiny."

Hirt has recently succumbed to the modern era, getting a Web site for his business, www.tomhirt.com but even that comes with a warning. It says, "I don't check my e-mail very often. And I'm probably out riding, roping or dancing with the ladies, so if you want to reach me, why don't you just give me a call."

-- Story and photo by Kenneth Wajda

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