The story of the trademark hat explained through generations of Hunter menfolk

According to my family’s history (mostly oral, as things were in those days), Moses Hunter migrated from his birthplace in Villa Rica, Georgia, into Northeast Alabama and married Mary Jane Dennis in May 1889. Another bit of family lore contends hers was an assumed name, taken to conceal her Cherokee ancestry. The topic was not widely discussed, just generally understood by the family. Marriages between those of Scots-Irish ancestry and native Americans were not widely accepted even near the beginning of the 20th century. Nonetheless, the Hunter family was born.

Among the sons was Alvis Aaron, the eldest, born in 1895. He grew up working with his father, clearing land, cutting trees with a cross-cut saw, farming, and sharpening axes, saws, and knives for neighbors. It was a practice Alvis would continue throughout his life. Sometimes he would take all day to sharpen one saw, but as neighbors noted, “When Alvis is done with a saw, you can shave with it.”

Fred Hunter’s hat hanging at the famed Mentone Inn B&B

Cleo Patry Tate was born in DeKalb County in 1901. Short in stature, she somehow caught Alvis’ attention and affection. In the tradition of the day, they probably met at some church gathering, most likely an “old book” singing. These all-day events were also called “shaped note” and “sacred harp” singing. No musical instruments were used, just a song leader who would “line” the songs followed by the congregation. The events were both spiritual and social. Courtships began. Families were started.

It has been noted by her descendants that Cleo Hunter’s life spanned quite an era. She lived to see the coming of the automobile, sent a husband and two sons to World Wars, raised two daughters (Melanie and Louise) and two sons (N.L. and Tirres) to adulthood, and watched men walk on the moon. Cleo also experienced the advent of electricity and indoor plumbing.

And therein lies a tale.

By the time Tirres and Dean brought their children into the world, indoor plumbing had become common, even in the foothills of the Appalachians where Cleo and Alvis had raised a family.  Louise had given birth to a son, Kenneth, and Melanie two sons, Roy and Van. When it was repeatedly suggested that an inside plumbing facility should be installed, Cleo resisted. Strongly. “Ain’t nobody going to the bathroom in my house,” she said. “Anybody needs to go, use the toilet outside like a civilized human.”

Those were not her exact words. She was much more specific as to the bodily functions — but Cleo never used the word “defecate.”  Doubtful she even knew the meaning.

A young Fred Hunter with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather

Cleo Hunter mastered the art of plain speaking long before Harry Truman came along. Yet when her baby son, Tirres, helped bring a boy into the world, and his young bride, Dean, declined taking the baby to the Hunter’s outdoor privy, Cleo relented. Indoor plumbing came to the Hunter household on Sand Mountain.

That baby — whom they named Fred — would grow up in large part on the Hunter farm. He would learn to walk holding onto the back of his granddaddy’s bird dog, Jack. And he would learn to love baseball. His grandaddy had been quite a player in the leagues that proliferated in the area. He explained his position as the man who would “catch behind.” In later years, the position would come to be known as “hind-catcher” and then later “catcher,” the player who “caught behind” the batter. The youngest grandson would remember pitching to the grandfather, then well into his old age, and never wanted afterward to be anything other than the man who “caught behind.” He followed the dream through high school and into college. Yet the thing he remembers most is the image caught in an old family photograph of his grandfather in a baseball uniform, catcher’s mitt in hand, wearing a 1900s-era baseball cap. Which leads to the beginning of the end of the story.

For a hundred years or more, men wore head coverings. Hats were the most common through the early 1960’s, but the new president, John F. Kennedy, refused to wear a hat. So, as a fashion staple, they went out of style. But the Hunter men wore hats. A mid-20th century photograph of Moses, Alvin, Tirres, and the baby, Fred, shows as much. And they were hats, not caps. Point of order: Hats have brims, caps have bills. The Hunters and others of their time wore hats, which were more function than fashion.

Fred Hunter’s grandson Logan thinks it’s funny to wear grandaddy’s hat

Hats shielded men from the sun for their outdoor work and provided protection from the cold in the winter. The brand became specific. In 1865, John B. Stetson began a company that gave birth to the first “cowboy hat.” In 1937, Stetson introduced the Open Road model. It would be worn by presidents and entertainers, from Will Rogers to Lyndon Johnson. Harry Truman to Jackie Gleason. Alvis Hunter wore an Open Road Stetson, as did his son Tirres until the end of his life. When I reached the age of 50, my only birthday request was for a Stetson Open Road.

So begins the story of The Hat — all that came before and all yet to come. A hat that became Absolutely Alabama, and continues collecting stories across Fred Hunter’s Alabama.