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My Farm Roots: A cowboy at heart

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

Trent Johnson didn’t grow up on a farm, but he was always enamored with the cowboy lifestyle.

He sure looks the part now. I visited him in his custom cowboy hat shop in Greeley, Colo. In a sleek black cowboy hat and blue western shirt, Johnson delivers the modern cowboy aesthetic.

During college he hung out with the urban cowboy crowd, which included concerts for country idols like Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw. The city kid, who’d spent part of his childhood on a ski team, decided he needed a change.

“College is an opportunity to reinvent yourself,” Johnson said. “And I was going to be a cowboy.”

After graduating from college, he lived out his ranch life fantasy for three-and-a-half years outside Greeley.

“Working on the ranch, I think I found within myself a pride and an ownership,” Johnson said. “I was excited that I got to see things from start to finish, whether it was building a fence, pulling a calf, irrigating.”

Credit Greeley Hat Works

  He now owns Greeley Hat Works, a business that’s been passed from owner to owner since the turn of the 20th century. He’s the third hat-maker to own the shop, at the helm for the past 18 years. Since taking it over, Johnson has made hats for President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, along with thousands of hats for average farmers and ranchers.

The hat shop stands as an institution in a city that prides itself on its agricultural heritage. Johnson says even though he became part of the agriculture community later in life, he was trusted with carrying on a longstanding tradition.

“You don’t stay around that long, by not either taking pride in your work or standing by your word or honoring your handshake,” Johnson said. He says those are values he learned during his tenure as a ranch hand.

Credit Kody Lostroh / Greeley Hat Works / flickr

  Before I left the shop, I asked Johnson if he had a vivid memory related to his time as ranch hand. He pulled out a swiss army knife. Tears started to well-up in his eyes. The knife was a souvenir given to him by the ranch’s owners after a vacation to Europe.

He said it looked like just any pocket knife, but that it represented a lot more.

“My boss went to Switzerland and all I got was this lousy Swiss army knife,” he said with a laugh. “No, all I got was a lot of responsibility. It’s just a huge thing when you’re the hired guy who really came from no background and they left the country and left me in charge.”

Trent Johnson, cowboy.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.