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An employee in the process of making a cowboy hat at Smithbilt Hats in Calgary.

JARED SYCH/The Globe and Mail

Back in 2005, Calgary's most famous headwear was under threat. Smithbilt Hats, which still handmakes (on 100-year-old equipment) the white cowboy hat synonymous with Cowtown, ran into some financial trouble.

The original owners, the Shumiatcher family, who started making the fancy chapeaux in 1919, had long since sold out and a succession of owners had run out of cash. A group of five volunteers on the Calgary Stampede rodeo committee offered to take the reins. "We just decided that this legacy in Alberta should not disappear," says vice-president and co-owner Byron Hussey. Oilmen and veterans of the city's business elite, they had the capital to make Smithbilt a full-on hat factory, but decided the value of their high-end handmade brand would trump volume.

Today, you can still get a hat made just for you: "We probably make somewhere in the order of 20,000 to 30,000 hats a year," says Hussey. Committing to low-tech charm has also made Smithbilt a destination for Alberta's corporate team-building events (watching your VP pound out a hat for you is good for morale, it seems). But the Stampede is still "cowboy Christmas" for these prairie milliners, without whom this little corner of Canadiana would be just another legend of the Old West.

The hats

Straw and canvas
, $25
For tourists, press kits and party favours

Wool felt, $90
Good solid utility hat but doesn't breathe as well as fur

Rabbit fur felt, $225
What Calgary gifts to top-flight visiting dignitaries such as William and Kate

Beaver felt, $900
For oilmen, ranch owners and serious hat aficionados. It's durable, light, breathable and "the last hat you'll ever buy," says Hussey.

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