Based on the quality of his craft, you might expect Gene Baldwin, owner of Baldwin’s Custom Hat & Boot Co in Sisters, to have been a hatmaker his whole life. In reality, he actually got into the business a bit later in life after spending much of his career as a lab technician, then a funeral director in Portland.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and even spent some time raising and showing Arabian horses,” Baldwin said. “I started selling hats on the side during my other business ventures, and transitioned into making them myself in 2004.”
Baldwin said he was inspired by a hat maker he stumbled upon in Grants Pass in a small Western store. Watching the store handcraft their hats, he figured he could learn how to do it himself. After learning from another well-established hat maker and learning how to operate the necessary machinery, Baldwin tried his hand at the craft and has been making custom hats ever since.
Everything Baldwin does is the old-fashioned way, down to the antique equipment he uses in his hat-making process. Even down to engaging and connecting with people who actually use cowboy gear for its intended purpose, Baldwin makes sure that every hat he makes can survive on the ranch, and still look great at the Sisters Rodeo.
The main draw Baldwin has to his business is the fact that a custom hat will fit like nothing else. “I’ve been able to craft hats for people who have never been able to buy a hat off the shelf because their head is a certain shape, too big or too small,” Baldwin said. “All I need are some measurements and I can make something really special for those people.”
Baldwin offers a variety of hat styles, and maintains some old-fashioned materials to ensure that his hats are always made at the highest quality. The fur used to make each hat is hand-picked and imported from Europe. All of Baldwin’s hats are either pure beaver fur or are blended with European Hare. You choose from 100 percent beaver, 50/50 beaver and hare or 100 percent hare. A hat made with real fur lasts longer, keeps its shape better and offers better protection from the elements.
At this point, Baldwin doesn’t even know how many hats he makes a month; he simply loves his craft and that has translated into plenty of business and a waiting list of several months. “I don’t love bookkeeping, but I do love what I get to do every day,” he said.
Down to using natural dyes that never run when they get wet, everything Baldwin creates is quality. “At 81 years old, I’m not sure how much longer God will let me keep doing this. What I do know is that I stand behind my work and every hat I create is made to the highest quality I am capable of producing,” Baldwin said.