A Man of Many Hats
A fresh snow had fallen upon Minnesota, leaving a blanket of white, which glistened beneath a high-noon sun. However beautiful, the fresh end-of-January snow had left drivers, and freeways, in little more than a mess as the day progressed.
Regardless of the weather, Paul Hoiland was optimistic about the day, having spent the morning hours tucked in his workshop which is dry, welcoming, and cozy. Riddled with materials, tools, and crafting supplies, this shop is a testament to trade work, diligence, and crafted passion. And, evidence of Paul’s hard work is sitting nearby, proudly displayed in the presence of a unique, intricately designed, moss-green Western hat.
That’s right – Paul Hoiland of Rockford is a hatmaker, and a good one, to boot.
Paul Hoiland is in his third year of making custom, uniquely-designed hats out of his workshop, which is nestled not but a stone’s throw from his front door. Complete with an array of specialty tools, his is a space of productivity, design, and hard work, all of which he not only takes pride in, but enjoys immensely.
However, Hoiland wasn’t always so fulfilled in hatmaking. He is a 27-year veteran of the United States Army, medically retired from combat. Having spent all of 2006 and 2007 in Iraq, he was a Company Commander of Military Police, and he came home with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a blast. This left him with memory loss, and severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I dedicated my entire life to the service,” Hoiland shared. “For me, there were only two paths in life: either be a cowboy, or a soldier. One has now lead to the other, as it just so happens.”
From Byron, Minnesota, Hoiland’s time with the service resulted in the medical discharge, as well as the inability to work outside of the home. PTSD became difficult to cope with, so Hoiland started therapy with Freedom Farm, in Waverly, where he started taking therapeutic horse riding lessons to cope.
“After working at Freedom Farm, I found a program through Semper Fi Fund,” he explained. “Semper Fi Fund helps wounded veterans thrive post military, and truly gave me my start in not only becoming a cowboy, but a hatmaker and business owner.”
Through Semper Fi Fund, Hoiland was able to join the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program. There, he learned many aspects of being the cowboy he’d always wanted to be – not only did he learn Western riding, but he learned roping, cattle cutting, and other skills. He attended round ups, and fully stepped into being a true cowboy.
“Without that program, I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today,” he said.
Semper Fi Fund offers veterans the opportunity to learn skills to work, one of which is through an apprenticeship program. Hoiland, interested in the opportunity, began looking at different skills the program offered, and had not really found one he was interested in.
“Then, my advisor found this program in hatmaking,” he started. “It’s in Colorado. In 2017, I agreed to go, and I went into the program with low expectations, thinking I wouldn’t be any good at it, and it couldn’t have a future for me. I was wrong.”
Hoiland thrived in the program, doing so well that he embraced the trade and loved it immediately. Deciding that hatmaking was the route for him, Semper Fi Fund helped him kickstart his business with a $20,000 startup budget for tools, and helped him apply for a grant through Home Depot, which supplied his workshop. From there, “True North Custom Hat Works” was born.
“I turned to cowboying as a component of my recovery from the events of Iraq,” he shares in his informative pamphlet. “I jumped at the chance to make hats, because as a kid, I always loved hats, and really it’s a quintessential look for cowboys. Offering the opportunity to craft something for someone that will last, and speak to their own personal style is something I love doing.”
Each year, Hoiland attends the WRCA Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas, with the Semper Fi Fund, which is a massive convention for those who embrace the cowboy Western life. Many hatmakers and specialty tradesmen attend the event where they sell wares and schmooze and network with clients and others in the industry.
“My first time, I was criticized pretty heavily by other hatmakers,” Hoiland explained. “Many people probably would have been defensive, but I saw this as an opportunity to learn. Free, constructive criticism, if you will. I’ve learned from it, and now when I attend, I get compliments from those same tradesmen.”
It typically takes Hoiland two days to make a custom hat, from choosing color to design specifications. He begins the process by measuring a client’s head and crown, and having them decide what type of style they want, what color, and what kind of hat band they want. Each hat has a customized sweatband, and matching grosgrain ribbon.
Typically, three types of hats are offered: pure rabbit, rabbit/beaver blends, and pure beaver. Each range in price, and other customized details can follow, depending upon brim size, bands, bows, or other specifics.
He acquires his materials from Winchester, Tennessee, from the one manufacturer left in the United States. The company has been manufacturing hats and materials since the 1840s, and offers the top, American-made products that money can buy. Not only does Hoiland take pride in his materials being manufactured in the USA, but it is an integral part in his business, and what sets him apart.
“A lot of other big box hatmakers get their stuff from Brazil, China, or overseas. I like my materials to come from the States, and take pride in that side of my business. People know they are not only getting a personalized and unique product from a veteran-owned company, but that all its parts are local and national.”
After research, Hoiland believes he is the only custom hatmaker in Minnesota, and is proud of his skill and trade, which continually improve every day.
“I always tell clients that the next guy’s hat could be better,” he shared. “I’m always learning. Each hat has something to teach, and that’s what I love about the trade business. It’s really a fading art, because people are moving away from doing things with their hands. They are losing the ability to learn from a job. I’m still doing this the same way as they did 150 years ago, but, each time I get something new from it.”
Hatmaking, to Hoiland, is not about the money, or even necessarily the product. It’s about the journey in making each hat, and improving not only his skillset, but also himself. The process is therapeutic, keeps him grounded and focused, and fulfills a passion for the cowboy way.
His advice to anyone considering working in trades is simple. “Do it. Try it out. These types of jobs are integral to the country’s success and future. There’s a passion in each avenue of the trades to be found, cultivated, and experienced. Be afraid to fail, and be ready to succeed, because it is truly a learning process.”
To date, Hoiland has made 74 hats, most of which go out of state. He and his wife reside in Rockford, and have one son, and one daughter.
For more information, visit his Facebook page: “True North Custom Hat Works, LLC.”