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Hats off to a bygone era

Amesbury collector preserving history

They call it Carriage Town because of its once prominent role in the world of buggy manufacturing. But Amesbury has another feather in its historic cap: the little city was also recognized for many years as one of the nation's biggest hat producers.

That's a piece of local lore that is largely forgotten, says Amesbury resident Alison Kelley, just like the once-ubiquitous sight of men in straw hats or fedoras and women in bonnets. For the past few years, Kelley, a retired nurse and library volunteer, has been working to preserve one of the crowning achievements of her adopted hometown.

Her ongoing archival project, the Merrimac Hat Collection of the Amesbury Hat Museum, is a tribute to a bygone era of American culture and the local workforce that shaped it -- a time when hats were as common as people. At the height of its success in the 1940s, Kelley says, the Amesbury-based Merri-mac Hat Corp. was the largest manufacturer of trimmed hats and hat bodies in the country.

The collection includes dozens of vintage Merrimac fashions, from broad-brim beaver hats and fedoras to Girl Scouts caps, an original Mouseketeers beanie, and some smart little rolled-brim hats endorsed by a very young Elizabeth Taylor. It is also a genealogical resource for the families of the thousands of people who worked in the company's factories and offices over the decades, from its founding in 1856 to its closing in the early 1970s. The company's riverfront mill buildings, listed on the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places, are now the Hatters Point Condominiums.

Kelley says she became intrigued by the Merrimac story several years ago after moving from Wakefield to Amesbury with her husband, Jim. Habitues of flea markets, antiques shops, and other collectors' haunts, they came across a weather-beaten hat bearing the Merrimac name at an auction in Maine. With her curiosity piqued, Alison started looking for the company's label, and she soon found a Merrimac tam at a Salvation Army thrift store.

''I probably paid $3 for it," she says.

She gave it to her young granddaughter, who was smitten with vintage clothing styles. The Kelleys soon found that they were turning up Merrimac hats everywhere they went, as far away as the Southern coastal states they passed through en route to their annual Florida vacations.

As she started to investigate, she realized that few people in Amesbury were aware of the extent of the city's hat-making history. ''Nobody had done a word about the hat industry, which was huge," she says. ''I couldn't understand."

She began collecting not just hats, but Merrimac ephemera as well -- newsletters, press clippings, photos from company outings. ''It's quite a little cache," she says. She has multiple copies of ''Making the Headlines," a company history published in 1944, when Merrimac Hat employed 2,100 people in seven factories from Nova Scotia to Alabama.

As ''Making the Headlines" indicates, hat-making in Amesbury actually dates all the way back to the 1760s, when Elder Moses Chase began making felt and bell-top beaver hats. One of his successors, Orlando S. Bailey, was the father of Abner L. Bailey, the founding father of Merrimac Hat.

Last fall, Kelley finally put the collection up for display, in the basement of the old mill building at 9 Water St. in Amesbury -- just up the road from the proposed site of the Amesbury Carriage Museum, for which her husband, another history buff, is serving as treasurer. To view the Merrimac Hat Collection, visitors must make an appointment.

The collection is lovingly arranged on shelves in a freshly painted nook, past the sprawling model train sets of the Salisbury Point Railroad Historical Society.

Kelley originally named the archive the Amesbury Hat Museum, but now prefers to call it the Merrimac Hat Collection. Because it isn't accessible to the public on a walk-in basis, she says, she does not want to mislead anyone. Besides, ''It's too pretentious -- this 'museum' business."

Modest as she is about her project, Kelley is making a significant contribution to Amesbury history, says onetime Merrimac Hat employee Harland Main.

''You can praise her pretty highly," says Main, 87, a fixture in many local institutions, including the Bartlett Museum and the Main Street Congregational Church, who worked in the Merrimac accounting office from 1946 to 1952. (''I was the paymaster," he says. ''My name was on the checks.")

Main worked for the company just as it was entering its period of decline. ''Our best year was 1949 or thereabouts," he says. ''After that, people stopped wearing hats."

John F. Kennedy, as Main and Kelley both note, was often blamed for hastening the decline of the hat industry with his brazenly bare, stylishly coiffed head. In truth, by the time the 35th president was elected, the average American was already going hatless. The final Merrimac Hat building closed its doors in 1971.

More than three decades later, Kelley's timing may prove to be impeccable. ''There's a tremendous interest in vintage hats all of a sudden," she says. ''They tripled in price over the past year." She speculates that the increased interest may be due in part to the popularity of the Red Hat Society, the fast-growing network of women celebrating life by wearing flamboyant hats.

Kelley herself is not a member, and she doesn't wear the hats she collects. ''They haven't looked good on me with my haircut," she jokes.