HOUSTON – Neal Shudde stands behind a polished wood counter stacked high with hats, organizing his inventory ahead of rodeo season. The longtime hatters jokes that a cluttered space is the mark of a true craftsman.
“If you ever walk into a hat shop and it’s neat as a pin, turn around and vamoose,” Shudde said.“Nothing is going on in there.”
At Shudde Bros. Hatters, Neil carries on his family’s century-old business shaping and selling premium hats meant to last a lifetime.
Shudde Bros. Hatters got its start in 1907 as the Shudde Southern Hat Company on Trinity Avenue in downtown Houston, opened by Neal’s grandfather Al Shudde. Shortly after, Al’s brothers joined in on the business and in 1914, it grew to include a hat factory. Over the years, Shudde Bros. made a name for itself, outfitting the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and James Henry “Red” Duke, Jr. President John F. Kennedy, President George H. W. Bush were also among the family’s notable clientele.
Even Sam Houston, an important leader of the Texas Revolution and a key political figure, was a Shudde Bros. customers, well posthumously at least. In 1936, the Shudde brothers restored Houston’s hat, which is now on display at his home in Huntsville.
But in 2007, after a century at its historic Houston location, Shudde Bros. shuttered its factory and moved into its current home at Brookwood Community, a residential program in Brookshire for adults with disabilities. Shudde’s son Wilson, a functionally disabled adult, works and spends much of his time there.
With the move, came a new mission. Now, all net profits from the hat shop benefit Brookwood.
On Brookwood’s 500-acre campus, roughly a 40 mile-drive West of downtown Houston, 110 adults live and work full-time; around 80 more participate in a day program, according to the facility. Brookwood provides its residents, dubbed “citizens,” a God-centered educational program focused on imbuing its disabled tenants with a sense of purpose and self-worth. Whether it’s serving food at Brookwood’s gourmet cafe, tending to plants in one of the facility’s 47 greenhouses, or delivering work orders like Shudde’s son Wilson, each citizen works a job tailored to their abilities. And every two weeks, they receive a paycheck.
The campus has eight group homes, two single-family staff homes, health and dental clinics, a Worship Center, activities and administration buildings, 47 greenhouses, a gift shop, and cafe, among other facilities.
For decades before the move to Brookwood, Shudde said he had struggled with what to do with the family business come retirement. His daughter studied to be a schoolteacher and his son Wilson can’t live alone, much less run a business. Without anyone to pass the reins to, Shudde wasn’t sure the business would survive him.
Enter Brookwood. Shudde said the idea to donate Shudde Bros. Hatters to the nonprofit came from his mother-in-law, Brookwood founder Yvonne Streit.
“We prayed about it for a year or two, and it seemed to be the right thing to do,” Shudde said. “So, here we are. I’m very thankful to be here. I’m thankful to God and I’m thankful to my mother-in-law for thinking of it."
And as for the hat shop’s legacy, Shudde said he believes God will provide someone to fill his post when the time comes.
“I think God will provide," Shudde said. "After Moses, he provided Joshua. So, I think he’ll provide the right person at the right time and the right age who understands Shudde Bros. and the mission of Brookwood.”
Shudde said the move from downtown Houston to Brookshire hasn’t kept customers from flocking to the hat shop for quality hats.
“Some people come to us from San Antonio, Austin, even Australia,” Shudde said. “We have wonderful customers who come from all over. One guy drove from Hondo and back the same day just to get a hat.”
During the Houston Rodeo and Livestock show, the Brookwood Community will sell Shudde’s hats alongside a selection of goods made by its functionally disabled residents. Profits from the vendor booth will benefit Brookwood Community. Find the stall in the Lone Star Market, an outdoor shopping market located on the west side of the NRG Astrodome and open daily, 2:30 to 9 p.m.
Shudde Bros. Hatters, in Brookshire at 1502 FM 1489, is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. For information, call (281) 375-2214.
The shop carries a selection of felt and straw Western and dress hats, top hats, fabric hats and caps. Aside from selling hats. Shudde restores hats and cutom-shapes hats as well.