By Chris Daigle, Contributing Editor
I always revisit places that made Houston history. I didn’t know it, but one place made an impact on my life as well.
Houstonians have all seen it so many times as we drive out of downtown on Washington Avenue: a forlorn looking building next to Knapp Chevrolet, not attracting much attention, because, after all, this part of town in Sixth Ward is full of aging wooden buildings. Many don’t know that if these walls could talk, they would tell of four generations of a family dedicated to hat making for all of Texas, and the rest of the United States, too. The friends they made and the client list that resulted over 108 years made them a cross-section of Houston history.
The faded letters over the front door can just be made out to read, “SHUDDE BROS.” for the Shudde Brothers Hatters at 905 Trinity Street, just south of Washington Avenue. It was started the old fashioned way, in an old fashioned time.
In 1906, Otto Schueddemagen and his wife Emma moved to a house on this spot with five boys: Walter, Al, Ben, John, and Herbert, and a daughter, Lydia. By 1907, Al began a hat renovating business in the 800 block of Preston with $200 and a firm desire to be the best in town when Houston was a relatively small town. He then named it Southern Hat Company. Al’s grandson, Neal Shudde, talked at length recently about the family, and the business. He’s the fourth-generation Shudde, continuing a tradition of craftsmanship that made men’s hats when the hat made the man.
“We’re standing in the family home right here,” he said, looking around at fireplaces, a polished wood floor, and a handcrafted spiral staircase. “The family lived here and ran a men’s hat store downtown, and in 1914, a factory was built around the house to expand the operation.”
By then, four of the brothers were involved in the downtown store or the factory. Men’s clothing and a second store were added after 1919. “This was a huge amount of progress. In 1906, when my great grandparents moved in, this house had been built in 1878, and was out in the suburbs. Washington Avenue was the only westbound road out of town from here, which is why they came,” said Neal.
We paused to look out on a Houston skyline much changed between the 19th and 21st centuries. The window we looked out of was 136 years old.
“Each brother had a unique personality,” Neal said, “which made things interesting for the business. Ben was an athletic guy, and he spent his young years as a Vaudville performer, doing trapeze acts on stage. He entertained daily in the years before 1920, and he was mechanically inclined too, and that ability led his brothers to ask him to run the factory.”
By the 1930’s to the 1990’s, Shudde Brothers Hatters (known for correct hat renovations) had made a tremendous name in clothing and hat merchandizing, taking hat orders from many western stores and men’s clothiers all over the United States. Their popularity made them a hit with the farmers to the famous, and the entertainment world took notice too.
“The factory customized the hats for John Wayne to wear during the filming of the movies, ‘The Alamo’ and ‘Hellfighters’ just outside of Houston,” said Neal. “Roy Rogers would have his hats sent to us by train before the rodeo every year in custom leather cases. Tom Mix was another frequent customer. Canada’s version of Roy Rogers, named Montie Montana, who was a legendary cowboy roping star and actor, had index cards on file with Shudde Brothers, with precise dimensions for his hats. The list goes on, but Gene Autry was a customer for many years,” he said.
“After John Connolly became governor of Texas, his wife Nellie Connolly would bring in his hats herself to be renovated,” Neal added. In November, 1963, Neal’s father Weldon got a call from Mayor Lewis Cutrer who said, “Weldon, the President’s coming to town. Can we give him a hat?” In response, Shudde Brothers donated a Stetson “Silver Belly” size 7 5/8, to be given to John F. Kennedy in Houston on November 21, 1963. Because of a crowded schedule in Houston, it was presented to him in Fort Worth the next morning, two hours before he was murdered.
Years later, unknown to Neal, the office of Lyndon Johnson wrote the factory in October, 1971 to renovate his hat to be put in the Lyndon Johnson Library. The list of entertainers doing business with Shudde Brothers included Chill Wills, Tony Curtis, Ernest Tubb, George Foreman, [“He was really a big person, but really nice. He came several times,” said Neal.”]. Justin Wilson and Dennis Weaver personally came to the factory to visit. The most famous of all the customers to Shudde Brothers was General Sam Houston, whose hat was renovated in 1936 for the Texas Centennial Celebration, marking 100 years of Texas independence.
One reason for the popularity of Shudde Brothers was, “Because this was a tight knit family. All the employees were like family, and were treated as such. When the Depression came, things got tough all around, and Al gathered all the employees together – there were about 40 of them at the time – and asked them in order to keep their jobs, would they work for half pay for now? Everyone agreed to do that, and nobody quit, and they survived,” Neal said.
As I perused though the file cabinets, I found a letter written by Walter, explaining that one employee could not serve in the Korean War because of bad health. That’s how much of a family they were.
Neal’s father Weldon eventually became President as the brothers passed away, and after Weldon’s death in 1996, Neal took over the business. “There are times when working six days a week is trying, and times when you feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over,” he said, but he likes the business too. “Each hat has to be different.”
He takes pleasure in the craftsman side of the business, which allows him to design unique hat shapes. Neal said he has given a lot of thought and prayer to whether he should be doing something else, but for the foreseeable future, running Shudde Brothers Hatters at Brookwoods just feels right.
The name was changed because in 2007, a decision was made to move the business operations to Brookshire, 35 miles west of Houston, to the Brookwoods Community, a center for disabled adults, and it was the right decision for him to be closer to his son Wilson, who helps out at the store. Many more decisions then had to be made over the next seven years as to the future of the old building at 905 Trinity.
“We looked into moving the house portion of the building to Heritage Park downtown, says Neal, “but the expense and logistics of such a move were not possible, much less a move to Brookshire.” Neal talked to other historians about using the place as is for some purpose, but to no avail. Thus, the building’s days were numbered. There was lots of work ahead for Neal, and he was essentially moving out by himself.
“I had no idea the amount of stuff in there,” he said. Fate must have stepped in: this reporter became involved as a photojournalist interested in the story. I ended the process feeling I was part of a family, and fell in love with an old wooden building.
In a way, Neal was re-discovering a building that he spent most of his 60 years in, at least since high school, and enjoyed every minute of it. “Right here,” he said, running his hand over the wood paneling, “Here’s the office where my father and I ran the business together.”
The building was not so much demolished, but dismantled, piece by piece, by professionals, to be used in other vintage homes somewhere else. The hand crafted spiral staircase was removed intact and sold to an architect three blocks away. Inside, one would think it was 1914 again. Frozen in time were giant, heavy hatmaking machines, one resembling a printing press, but used to press and smooth hats. Steam boilers ran steam throughout the two story building for heat, and the two workbenches, now silent, were waiting for their next duty.
Overhead, wooden hat forms rested by the hundreds, having every possible hat shape and style available to craftsmen. Neal and I could see people cutting, trimming, steaming, sewing, and blocking hats for customers all day long. They didn’t have computers, and the only Apple they knew about was in their lunch box. They probably looked something like Wilford Brimley, all craftsmen, and loving every minute of it.
About a week into this conservation effort, we met Roger Huffman, an energetic, gregarious collector of vintage light fixtures. He’s got a big smile, and an even bigger handshake. In between fix-it jobs on heating units around town, Roger is also fascinated with historic buildings. “This was somebody’s life at one time. It was somebody’s livelihood,” he said. “I can tell that it’s got a hundred stories to tell.”
Now, with Neal, Roger, and myself, these walls began to speak volumes. Together, we were amazed by the craftsmanship that went into making this place originally, and how it has lasted over 108 years without modern conveniences, much less air conditioning. “That’s why there are these big windows,” Neal said. “That, and the circulating fans kept it bearable in here.”
I explored file cabinets full of customer orders and invoices to every western wear store in America in the 1950’s; brochures, instructions to the machines, photos, and bowling certificates. I was getting a three-way education: Hat making, the history of light fixtures, and family history.
One find made us stop everything and believe in Divine coincidence: A newspaper article on the passing of Walter Shudde showed his address as 2415 Elmen Street in 1972. Roger’s current address was 2411 Elmen, right next door!
There were many more “Oh My Gosh” moments in this three-month journey into yesteryear. Working at night by flashlight, we discovered vent fans hidden behind cabinets, hat racks with dusty fedoras waiting for customers who will never come and blueprints to the 1953 facelift of the building. We all agreed, in the cold and dark, that this wasn’t a matter of, “What am I doing here.” This was more like, “When can I get back here?” It was like diving to the Titanic without the water.
What gave the place its life, its very soul, was how long some employees worked there. Neal told us of Joe Bishop, who came to Shudde Brothers Hatters in 1923 to make deliveries on a bicycle, and stayed 60 years until 1983, when he retired as foreman of the factory. “Look here, this was Leo’s bench,” Neal said. “Leo Marx came to us in 1923, and learned everything in this place, and stayed 60 years. Leo knew all about our customers and what they liked, and he did it all, except the sewing. The men didn’t do any sewing. Leo mostly blocked and shaped hats. Those are the two main steps of renovation.”
Each person’s bench still had the notes, hat sizes, and clippings of their career posted to the wall. Roger showed us a board on which Leo wrote, “If you need a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”
For many years, the front walls were covered with celebrity customer’s photos, from John Wayne to George Bush. Neal’s father, Weldon Shudde, kept them out of view because he was a modest man who felt that displaying them would be bragging. After receiving a Hollywood glossy 8×10, he would write a thank you note to the sender, and put the photo away. Neal convinced his father to hang the photos because the customers might enjoy them. Neal noted that his grandfather, Al Shudde, was an outgoing man, but we noticed that all the stress of running, and now moving, 108 years of hat making history, Neal remained humble, just like his father. “Nothing to brag about. We’re just normal people,” he said.
Roger and I always had a sense that this was a comfortable place to work, even though we had no previous contact with Shudde Brothers Hatters. Maybe Al, Ben, Herbert, John, and Walter were in some way there with us.
“I’m sure they would be pleased with how we’ve taken care of things,” said Roger. “Now we know why people stayed so long. I’d love to have worked here myself. They worked for a family, and they felt needed, and that was why.”
Neal said, “The atmosphere was not ‘us versus them.’ People wanted to be here, and wanted to give their best. They gave respect, and got respect, as craftsmen.”
Roger added, “We’re also saving a sense of place. The sights and smells of this place take you back to a simpler time. Most people wish for the good old days. We are standing in the good old days right now. We have touched and saved things that haven’t been used in 50 years or more. No amount of money can replace that.”
After three months of exploration, the final demolition day came: Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Neal came for one last look at the site of his entire family history, and some of the city’s history as well. He stood alone with his thoughts.
“It’s just so surreal, looking at this,” he said. “You know, my grandfather started Southern Hat Company on July 1, 1907, and we moved out on June 30, 2007, one hundred years ago to the day. The factory was built in 1914, and its being demolished in 2014. That’s God’s way of saying, ‘Job well done, mission accomplished.’”
Neal kept some bricks for himself, and he was on his way. Tomorrow he’s selling hats at the Rodeo. Neal Shudde has a tradition to continue.
In a way, things came full circle in this wooden time machine in the shadow of downtown Houston. Before people sat and watched John Wayne battle the oil well fires in “Hellfighters,” his hats were made right here. Before people saw Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on their black and white TVs, those hats were being made right here.
On March 30 at 8pm, we took one last look at the empty scene of so much history that unfolded silently behind those wooden walls. The block is now empty, but it filled three explorers and thousands of Texans with memories to last a lifetime.
And suddenly, we realized, we are all Shudde Brothers now.
For more information about Shudde Brothers, visit http://www.shudde.com/.
Chris Daigle is a Houston Historian and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. He may be contacted at email@example.com.