Friday, February 19, 2010

Almost Making History 5 - The tenderfoot

It seems that making history, becoming famous, changing the world is as much about having dumb luck as having great talent, superior intelligence or innate predisposition. There are so many stories of people that just happened to have the right idea, at the right place and at the right time that I decided to write about those that happened to have the wrong idea, at the wrong place or at the wrong time. Note that the names, dates and events have been changed to protect the innocent and ensure their continued anonymity.

Nick was in a bad mood. His boss, Joe Horton had agreed to let a sickly tenderfoot from New Jersey join their party as they were ready to leave St. Joseph, Missouri to head towards Pike’s Peak in the Territory of Colorado. The party was gearing up to go prospecting for gold and Nick knew that another mouth to feed and, most importantly another potential shareholder, was not good for his bottom line. Nick had embarked on this adventure to make a quick buck so that he could finally marry his Isobel, and anything that could potentially get in the way was not well received.

JB, as the Easterner wanted to be called, was a mild mannered young man who had decided to come to the wide open spaces of the West to help cure his tuberculosis. After having worked in the brick business for a while, the call of the wild proved irresistible. As it’s often the case, he just happened to be sitting next to Joe Horton one night in a local saloon and overheard him talk about his expedition. JB jumped on the occasion and asked to join the party. Joe, who when sober starts any negotiation with a “no”, quickly accepted JB in exchange for another shot of whiskey. And so it is that JB joined the party.

Over the first few days of trekking, it seemed that Nick and JB were travelling next to each other more and more. Maybe their pace was similar or maybe Nick and JB had more in common than Nick initially thought. Whatever the reason, Nick actually started to enjoy JB’s company. JB was quick witted and he always had a funny way to look at things. It also helped that he seemed in no way intimidated by Joe, always saying the right things to get the Boss going; it may have made Joe’s life miserable but it made the trip a lot more enjoyable! One way JB continuously jabbed Joe was by referring to him as the “pane boss”. This strange nickname came about after an incident that occurred just before leaving St. Joseph. Joe, upon leaving the saloon piss drunk, walked face first into a window, breaking his nose. As he shook off the pain he yelled out: “You ain’t the boss of me”, and then proceeded to break the pane of glass with his now amply bandaged left fist and walk out through the new opening. Once the laughing died down, someone raised a toast to Joe Horton, the uncontested boss of the pane, and the nickname stuck.

The journey’s routine was pretty simple. Get up early, have coffee, walk for hours, have a quick break to munch on some god awful pemmican, walk some more, find a convenient place to camp, build a fire, prepare a dinner of fresh meat (when available) and beans, and have a shot of whiskey around the campfire. Most nights the weather allowed the party to sleep under the stars but when it rained, all they had to protect themselves were fairly fresh animal skins of different sizes thrown on a quickly assembled wood frame. They had not brought any tents in order to travel light but when they found themselves trying to sleep with water leaking through untanned hides, it seemed like a stupid decision. On a bet with some other party members, JB showed how the hides could be turned into a much stronger and waterproof material. Using his axe to shave the hair from the animal skins, he fashioned a piece of felt which won him the bet but was way too small to offer any protection for those rainy nights. In order to do that, they would need hundreds of hides and a lot of time on their hands. They had neither because gold was waiting.

As they continued on their journey, JB used the piece of felt to fashion a simple hat, something that vaguely resembled the conical shaped one worn by immigrant China men. Every time JB wore the hat, Nick could not stop laughing. Nick thought JB looked like an arrow with no feathers… Out of frustration, JB threw the felt hat at Nick and challenged him to come up with something better. Having learned from JB how to work the felt, Nick spend many sleepless nights coming up with a good design: something that would protect the wearer from sun and rain, provide some warmth on cold days and be adjustable so that it could be made to shelter the head from the dominant wind. Through trial and error, Nick came up with a pretty decent looking hat. In fact, it looked so good that Joe Horton offered 5 dollars for it. Nick gladly sold it as it brought him a step closer to Isobel.

When Joe started wearing the hat, it had quite an impact. Everyone thought it looked real nice and gave Joe an air of importance. One day, Richard, a trapper from Quebec who was responsible for providing the meat needed by the party, returned from a hunting expedition and noticed Joe’s hat. In surprise, he yelled out in his funny French accent: “Look at de big Joe with is nice chapeau, now he really looks like de Boss of de pane!!!”. It is often really hard to explain these things but, over time, “boss of the pane” evolved into “boss of the plain” and the name become associated with the hat itself.

After weeks and weeks of travel, the party finally made it to the hills of Colorado but, a lot of digging and panning never resulted in the anticipated earnings: finding gold was hard. Over the months, the party started to break up: some pushed further west, some stayed put in hope of finding the mother lode and others decided to go back east. Nick was one of them. He returned home to married his belle, bought a piece of land on a lake in the wilds of Quebec and completely forgot about his contribution to the hat industry.

As for JB, he also returned east and settled down in Philadelphia where he founded the John B. Stetson Hat Company. The rest, as they say, is history.


  1. So, did Nick and Isobel ever invite Richard to there little cabin by the lake in the woods of Quebec?

  2. Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle!! My favourite character was Richard with the "funny French accent"!! What happened to him? He went back to trapping? The king of the Courier du Bois? :) Thanks for a good laugh!! Back to the wilds of Quebec for me!! ;)

  3. Ahh Rich ! You are the new Mark Twain @

  4. Brigand and Isobel, thank you for the comments... And no, we have not yet been invited to their cabin...
    JF merci, mais Mark Twain, la marche est un peu haute. Je me contenterais de viser le niveau de Brice Robin, célèbre auteur du best seller "750 trucs et astuces pour la maison".