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Man of many hats

Marci Gore • Jun 18, 2012 at 9:06 AM

Tim Allen says he has loved studying the Civil War ever since he was a young boy.

Born in Rogersville, Allen spent his earliest years in northeast Tennessee. But, in 1967 when Allen was in second grade, the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union shut down the Pressman’s Home in Hawkins County and the Allens moved north to Washington, D.C.

“I had no idea about the Yankees and the Rebels until I went to school in Maryland that fall,” said Allen. “It was then that I was called a ‘Rebel.’ Soon after we moved up north, I was looking at an atlas one day with my brother. Boy, was I shocked to find out Tennessee wasn’t in South America. My older brother looked at me as though I had three heads and said, ‘Don’t be dumb! We live in North America.’ I would not buy it at first. ‘We can’t! We are Rebels, not Yankees!’ And that was the beginning of my lifelong love of studying the Civil War.”

Today, Allen lives in Eldersburg, Md., with his wife, Terry. His family, however, eventually moved back to Tennessee. His father and stepmother, Wayne and Peggy Allen, his mother and stepfather, Shirley and John Warner, and his sister, Lori, live in Rogersville. His brother, Kent, is in Nashville.

After he got a little older, Allen began participating in Civil War re-enactments. These re-enactments ultimately led Allen to a hobby he’s still engaged in today — Civil War hat making.

“I started doing Civil War re-enactments in 1976, having the good fortune to live very close to many of the battlefields in Virginia and Maryland. My family was very supportive in my pursuit of this hobby,” said Allen. “After returning from the Army in 1981, I returned to re-enacting and saw how things had changed. The reproduction uniforms looked better, as well as the equipment that re-enactors used. The one thing, however, that I always hated was the bad slouch hats the Confederate soldiers wore. They were often made of thin wool and were shaped very unauthentic. Many were just 1950 and ’60s men’s hats just reworked a little.”

A turning point for Allen came in 1989 when he went to the Nashville Civil War Relic Show and saw a man who was selling fur felt hat bodies he had purchased from the Stetson factory in Missouri.

“They looked more like an ugly hillbilly shaped hat, but I was intrigued. I bought two of the bodies for five bucks each and took them home. I did not know the first thing about blocking hats or shaping them, but I figured if I soaked them in hot water and shaped them the way I had seen in the original Civil War photographs, they would look more like a Civil War era slouch hat,” he said. “After a few attempts, I had them both looking pretty good. I cut the brims down, shaped the top and stiffened the hat with diluted shellac. I found some silk grosgrain ribbon for the brim edge and crown and installed a pigskin leather sweatband. I finished off the hat with a cotton liner.”

Allen wore his newly created hat to his next re-enactment.

“It was bought off my head for $100. The guy would not take no for an answer. He kept bugging me so I finally told him, ‘OK. $100.’ He took the money out of his wallet and removed the hat from my head. Since I had two hat bodies, I made another one and the same thing happened at the next event. At that point, I figured that I may have stumbled onto something,” he said.

Word of Allen’s hats spread quickly throughout the re-enactment community, and, Allen says, he had people calling him for hats every week.

“That is when I really started to study photographs of Civil War soldiers and visiting museums to document and put together a data base of hats and their construction,” he said. “I strive to make my hats the most authentic that you can buy and I’ve been embraced by the authentic re-enactor community as the place to buy a ‘correct’ hat.”

Many of the re-enactors Allen has worked with and made hats for have played in the movies and on television as extras.

This led to Allen making hats for the History Channel’s series, “Civil War Journal” and several Civil War-themed movies such as “Gettysburg,” “Glory,” “Cold Mountain,” “God’s and Generals” and, most recently, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” set to be released later this year. “Lincoln” boasts a cast of several major stars, including Tommy Lee Jones, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Hal Holbrook.

“The movie business is tough because they will call you for a particular hat and want it within a few days. I had just made several hats for the movie, ‘Lincoln,’ and they called me back and said ‘We need another hat that will be used in a scene in three days. It is for the Robert Todd Lincoln part.’ I told them that there was no way I could get them a custom-made hat made and sent from Washington, D.C., to Richmond in that time. They said, ‘Have the hat ready and we will send a car up from the movie set to pick it up.’ I got the hat ready in two days. After the movie set runner left with the hat, I told my wife that was one very expensive hat Robert Lincoln will be wearing,” he said.

Allen admits it is exciting to see his hats on film or TV.

“I never thought that after all of these years I would still be making hats as a hobby. After all, I really just wanted to make a few hats for myself. This is not my primary job. I don’t need the money for making them. I just want to make them right,” Allen said. “We have a term that we use in the re-enacting community — farb. This means ‘far be it from authentic.’ A lot of guys just throw on a jacket and gray hat and gray pants and get a really bad knapsack and they think they’re a re-enactor. But you’ve got to get to the real nitty-gritty and get the proper cloth, the proper color and the proper sewing techniques. If you’re going to do it, do it correctly. Even right down to the facial hair and the haircut. Hats are the same thing. My saying is, ‘You’re only as good as your hat.’ If your hat looks good, everything below also looks pretty good.”

Currently, Allen is a member of several re-enacting and Living History units located in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

“As a member of the Baltimore Light Artillery, which volunteers for the U.S. Park Service at battlefields, such as Antietam, Gettysburg and Harpers Ferry, it is an honor to portray the soldiers of the Civil War on the actual sites. We do artillery demonstrations several times a year, using our privately owned full-scale Civil War cannons,” he said.

Allen is also part of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans re-enactment group, which portrays this famous Confederate unit at the large re-enactments. Allen says, with this being the second year of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, re-enactors will be busy through April 2015.

“Doing living histories and re-enactments takes you beyond the book and museum. To try and live and go through the motions of what those brave men really went through, if just for a moment, is truly rewarding,” said Allen. “Of course, we are just play acting, but we try very hard to honor the real soldiers with historically correct interpretations. For them it was life and death. For us, it’s just trying to keep their sacrifice alive.”

Allen’s hats are sold through S&S Sutlery in Gettysburg, Pa.

For more information, email [email protected] or call (717) 338-1990.

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