History of the State Park Ranger's Stetson Hat

DATE: June 1968
TO: All Personnel
RE: The Uniform
FROM: Willian Penn Mott, Jr.

A great deal of time and effort was expended in the development of the Department's uniform manual. The committee, which developed this manual, is to remain in force to review recommendations and to take such action as may be necessary to keep the manual up to date.

The wearing of the official state park uniform is to be considered a privilege and an honor and it should be worn with pride. On a number of occasions, rangers have met me at various airports and I have noted with pride their professional, well-groomed appearance. I have also observed that people on the side commented to each other in very complimentary tones about the fine appearance of our personnel.

Our personnel reflect the quality of the State Park System. Well-groomed, officially attired park personnel stand out in a crowd as distinctively as do our state park units on the landscape of California.

I encourage all of our personnel to maintain their uniforms in a clean, neat manner and keep themselves well groomed at all times commensurate with the high quality which we will ever strive to achieve for the entire State Park System.

Wm. Penn Mott, Jr., Director

Reprinted from a 1968 uniform memo from then Director Wm. Penn Mott, Jr., and the Uniform handout used in the
1972 State Park Ranger Trainee instruction program for Group C-D. ~ Courtesy J. B. Price

John B. Stetson, stiff brim, "Neutria" quality, Belgian Belly color; these are the specifications that describe an item of apparel that has a proud heritage - the State Park Ranger Stetson.

The story begins in 1858, when John B. Stetson started west, possibly to die of "consumption", which he had contracted working with his family in the hat trade. There are innumerable tales of dying men regaining their health when confronted with the challenge and healthy hard work of "winning the West". John B. Stetson returned to Philadelphia a healthy man in 1863 to re-enter the hat trade.

During the summer of 1862, while sitting around a campfire near Pike's Peak, Stetson, who had been showing his fellow wanderers the felting process, decided to make a felt hat. Using the fur from jackrabbits, beavers, skunks, and any other fur-bearing animal he could find; Stetson made his first genuine Stetson hat. It was big and very peculiar looking, but it protected Stetson from the wind, rain, and sun. Some of his companions admired it, but most of them considered the odd-looking hat to be a perfect object for jokes and wisecracks, but when a Mexican bullwhacker offered him a five dollar gold piece for it the kidding came to an abrupt halt. At the same time the first sale of a genuine Stetson hat was made.

When Stetson returned to the hat trade in Philadelphia his first commercially successful hat was copied after the one he had made earlier around the Pike's Peak campfire. Called the "Boss of the Plains", it was a natural colored hat, with a four inch brim, four inch top, and a strap which served as a band. At first it was made of one grade of material and sold for five dollars. During the years the material grew finer and the cost increased until finally a thirty-dollar price tag was attached to pure beaver, or nutria hat. This "Boss of the Plains" is truly the hat from which all of our modern Stetsons evolved.

The o ld Army campaign hat is thought by many to be the first ranger type hat worn by park rangers. Others believe that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Stetson, adopted in 1901, was the one which influenced the evolution of our present hat. In either case, through the years our Stetson has been at one time or another a "Boss of the Plains", a modified "ten-gallon", a soft-brim Army campaign style, and finally a stiff-brim ranger Stetson.

The original uniforms of the National Park Service, established in 1916, including the hat, were actually military type uniforms, adapted from those used during the period when the parks were administered by the military. National Park Rangers began wearing the stiff-brim, Belgian Belly color, (named after the beautiful reddish buff, pastel like color of the underfur of the Belgian Hare), hat in 1934, when the Stetson Company standardized the manufacturing of the Ranger Stetson.

Most California State Park Rangers wore the early soft-brim Stetson from the very birth of our system. At the first State Park Employees Conference in 1938 a uniform study was requested. In 1939 the Uniform Committee recommended a State park Uniform, consisting of Lincoln gray-green trousers and jacket, gray shirt, black tie, black leather goods, and the stiff-brim Stetson. Since this first official uniform everything but the Stetson has seen drastic change.

This hat has been called by many names, "Brush Cutter", "Lily Pad", "Smokey the Bear", and other more colorful but unprintable ones. It has been used for many purposes, protection from the wind, sun, rain, and falling objects; to carry drinking water; to feed and water saddle and pack stock; to fan campfires; to shoo flies and mosquitoes; as a
pillow; and for many other useful purposes.

Call it what you may, but wear it proudly!

This hat has become the symbol of an unusual group of men; men who have dedicated their lives to the protection and administration of our wilderness and natural resources. It is fitting that it be known by the name of a man who regained his health in the outdoors we all love so well. It is an honor and a privilege to wear . . . the Ranger Stetson.

Reprinted from the 1972 California State Park Ranger Trainee manual.
Language and gender references reflect the time period. ~ Courtesy J.A. Kolb