By Rosalie Currier
History is more fun for some of us when it’s tied to nostalgia.
That seems to be true for those who remember Laura Lewis Hat Shop. From 1924-1974, it was a significant retailer in downtown Sturgis. Fifty years is a long time for a hat shop to exist. Laura Lewis survived The Great Depression, World War II, the “Happy Days” and into the hippy era. It was plenty of time for nostalgia to take root.
So we decided to celebrate Laura Lewis Hat Shop at 3 p.m. March 17, reservations are required.
The idea sparked last spring when a lady called the museum inquiring about a hat shop she remembered from her childhood. I assured her it was Laura Lewis and after hearing her memories I went on Facebook and asked for more. Here are some of the responses.
Sharon Bowman: In the ‘60s, I went there to buy hats and gloves to match. I remember one Easter wearing a white suit with an orange hat and gloves from Laura Lewis Hat Shop.
Joan Deffenbaugh Fisher: I went there with my grandmothers. They always bought their hats there and they always wore a hat when they left the house when it was time to wear a coat. If they didn’t wear a hat, they used a scarf. We bought Easter hats there. Those were the days you were expected to wear a hat to church. I had a wedding veil made there in 1970.
Suzy Garner: My best friend and I often went into that hat store to browse when we were about 10 years old. Two older ladies worked there. Both wore black 2-inch tall, square-heeled old fashion tie shoes. Both were dressed like “Aunt Bea” from the Andy Griffith show. One of them nervously followed us around making sure we didn’t touch anything. After all, we were a couple of grungy kids with no money. The other sweet lady would watch us as we admired a hat and say, “Isn’t that lovely! Would you like to try it on?” She made us feel like important customers: a lesson in kindness I never forgot. Her name was Mrs. Arlene Fortney.
Barb Gray: Went there nearly every year to buy my Easter hat.
Spurred by their memories and compelled by stacks of Laura Lewis Hat Shop boxes I started to gather information. Come to find out, it was Margaret Olmstead who truly was the “Sturgis hat lady.”
Laura Lewis opened the shop in 1924, then got married in 1933 to Dr. Heber Elliott, a veterinarian in Orland, Ind.
In notes from a talk she gave, Olmstead wrote,”He gave Laura two years to make up her mind what to do with the hat shop.
“In early 1935 she made me an offer to manage her shop and after some thought I left my employment at the Tribbett store and started to work at the hat shop – March 3, 1935.”
After several years Olmstead became a co-owner until Laura’s death in 1963, then full owner.
So pretty much anyone who remembers Laura Lewis Hat Shop remembers Olmstead and her staff – Hazel Corning, who worked with her 34 years; Arlene Fortney 27 years, along with Millie Wakeman, Velma Merchant, Vivian Snow, Beverly Studeman, Mable Britto, Wilma Bassitt Anderson, Mary Giggy and others for shorter periods.
“They were all great co-workers,” Olmstead wrote.
In 1970, Olmstead sold the shop to Laura Lewis Elliott’s step-son and his wife. They closed it in 1974.
We chose to celebrate Laura Lewis Hat Shop in March because it would have been right in the middle of their busiest season, Easter, which is March 31.
The event will include a spot of tea and some treats, hat trivia, storytelling and door prizes. Because we are holding it at the museum, seating is limited and reservations are required and a suggested $10 donation. Visit our Facebook page for additional details, or call us, (269) 503-7440.