Mississippi hatter creates fedora for Indiana Jones film
Sometimes he dreamed of adventure. Columbus native Steve Delk grew up raising cotton, soybeans and livestock on the family farm, but after graduating from New Hope High School in 1970, he decided to study anthropology and archaeology at Mississippi State University.
Intrigued by Mesoamerican cultures, Delk imagined he'd some day search for artifacts and study ancient civilizations, such as the Inca, Aztec and Mayan Indians. But after discovering he'd have to earn a doctorate to make a decent living in the field, he changed his major to business.
It's funny how things sometimes come full circle. Delk never traveled the globe on an archaeological adventure, but thanks to the Internet, the hats he now crafts at his Columbus business Adventurebilt Hat Co. have made their way around the world and onto the head of actor Harrison Ford.
No, Delk didn't become the next plane-jumping, bridge-cutting, snake-hating, Nazi-fighting, raft-riding archaeologist like Indiana Jones, but he did make the icon's famous hat. Indy will don one of the fedoras Delk created in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" when the movie opens May 22.
It's a unique opportunity Delk, a contract cabinetmaker, had been unknowingly preparing for more than a decade. Never a big movie-goer, he missed the original theater releases of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." But 12 years ago, a friend popped a copy of "Raiders" into the VCR that sent Delk on his own personal journey, a quest to find the perfect Indiana Jones hat.
"I didn't know much about the movie, but I liked the hat," Delk said. "I spent years buying hats that were supposed to be Indiana Jones hats, and none looked like the ones on the screen. I finally found out the only way I was going to own one was to make one myself. Being a cabinetmaker, you think you can make anything."
And much like the elusive Holy Grail that Indy tracks down in the third installment, Delk's crusade led him to the Library of Congress, where he purchased a copy of Scientific Hat Making, a book filled with early 20th century lingo like Indy's leatherbound journal of mysterious archaeological notations.
"It was the only book I've found in existence that really told how the old-time hatters make hats," Delk said. "It's a secretive art. Hatters don't tell their secrets to others."
Delk spent three years learning the craft before making his own hat. Pleased with the way it turned out, he posted pictures of it online.
"The next thing I knew, there were hundreds of people who wanted to buy that hat," he said. "But I wasn't making hats; I was a cabinetmaker."
For the last few years, Delk has been hatting as a hobby. Customers, mostly Indiana Jones fans, generally only pay for materials, shipping and handling. Delk doesn't include the price of labor.
And through the Internet, he's befriended other Indiana Jones outfitters, like England resident Peter Botright, who creates and sells the leather jackets Indy wears on film.
Delk became a part of "The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" when Botright referred him to film costumer Bernie Pollack (brother of actor/director Sydney Pollack, known for films like "Out of Africa," "Tootsie" and "The Firm.")
"I've known Peter about 10 years, and he knew I had a fanbase and was spoken highly of," Delk said. "He gave Bernie my contact information, and a few days later, he called me."
Pollack asked for samples, and Delk sent five.
"As soon as he got them, he called me back and said, 'You got it,' " Delk said. "He had been working with one hatter in Los Angeles who was incapable of making the hat. A lot of it had to do with the block shape I used. That sewed it up for me."
Originally entrusted with creating 36 hats, Delk made 48 before the job was finished.
"Harrison needed at least nine because it was going to be a wet film," Delk said. "They knew there would be a lot of water. He also has three stunt doubles, and they had to have hats as well. And (Steven) Spielberg wanted a few hats as gifts for his friends, so that figured into the 48.
"I had a hard time believing I was making the hats for the film, but once it sunk in, I basically worked without any sleep for three days to get six made so they could start filming. It generally takes about a day to make a hat. I make them exactly the way they would have been made if you went into a small hat shop back in 1930."
The hat, jacket and bullwhip all have starring roles in Indy films, and because of their importance, filmmakers added a video on the film's official Web site called "Indy's Hat and Jacket," featuring commentary by Spielberg, Ford and Pollack, who talks about finding the film's hatter in Mississippi.
"I was under great pressure to try to duplicate an iconic picture with a bunch of icons - with George Lucas, with Steven Spielberg, with Harrison Ford," Pollack says in the video. "I had to come up with the right stuff, and through referrals and referrals, I ended up with a guy named Steve Delk in Mississippi, and he ended up making a lot of different hats, and finally kind of perfected them with the crease and everything.
"He came up with the perfect hat - great, great hat body, heavy weight - and he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. . . The first thing Steven (Spielberg) said when he saw the hat was 'Oh great, I lost sleep over thinking you wouldn't be able to come up with the hat, and I'm thrilled to death with the way the hat came out. Everyone seems to be happy with it.'"
Florida native Mark Cross, who heads distance learning classes at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, is happy with five hats Delk created.
"I have always worn hats," he said. "I was one of those oddballs back in the day before the movie came out that actually wore a fedora. I use the hat as a tool. I've worn in it in snowstorms and Arizona deserts."
Once a common men's accessory, many have speculated about what led to the hat's demise.
"People blame Jack Kennedy for his decision not to wear one at his inauguration," Cross said. "I always thought it was because kids were trying to separate themselves from The Establishment during the '60s, and a hat represented The Establishment.
"Now, I think they're coming back. Not only are they classy-looking, but with what we've got going on with skin cancer and other things, people are realizing it's just smart to wear a hat."
While Delk has yet to sell an Indy fedora to a Mississippian, he's sold them all over the world.
"Since word got out on the official site, and Bernie mentioned my name and told the story of the hat, I have been bombarded with orders," Delk said. "There's like a year of orders waiting. Now with the publicity, I guess I will have to turn it into a small business and treat it like one."
Delk charged the movie studio the same price he charges customers - about $350 a hat, which just covered the basics. Pure beaver felt hats like the ones he makes usually cost $500 to $795, he said.
"Being able to make the last Indy fedora was an honor in itself," he said, adding that he plans to soon increase his price. "As soon as the movie breaks May 22, I'm going up."
Until then, he awaits the film's release.
"When I go see the film the first time, I know I'll be looking at the hat, so I'll have to watch it the second time to see what the plot is about," he said.
"But the best thing for me is that my grandkids (Sidney, 9, Sam, 7, and Zachary, 2) will always be able to say 'Papaw made that hat.' Really, I was just in the right place at the right time."
"The Indy fedora I made for the film uses an old block shape," Steve Delk said. "It was actually created in the late 1800s by Herbert Johnson, a hatter in the United Kingdom, and I basically copied it and carved it out by hand."
ON THE NET
For more information about the film, visit the official film Web site at www.indianajones.com/site/index.html
For more information about the Adventurebilt Hat Co., visit the official Web site at www.adventurebilthats.com/
To see some of Delk's Indiana Jones customers wearing their hats, visit www.adventurebilthats.com/photos.asp