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New head for iconic Northland cap company

The 119-year-old Stormy Kromer torch is passed to a woman for the first time.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Gina Thorsen listens as her father tells a story June 24 at Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Mich. Thorsen will be the first female CEO of the over-100-year-old Stormy Kromer brand.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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IRONWOOD, Mich. — There are some made-in-the-Northland outdoor products that need no introduction. Frost River bags for canoe trips. Northland jigs for walleye fishing. Sven saws for cutting firewood in camp.

Stormy Kromer hunting cap andvest
Once available only in subdued colors, Stormy Kromer winter caps are now available in many colors.
Contributed / Stormy Kromer

And Stormy Kromer caps for keeping your noggin warm.

Kromer caps are perhaps the closest thing out there to the one Elmer Fudd wore while hunting "wascally wabbits." Or the cap Walter Matthau wore in the “Grumpy Old Men” movies. Or the cap your grandfather wore hunting or snowshoeing, and probably still does.

But the Stormy Kromer cap is far more than a throwback. It’s become a multi-million-dollar outdoor brand, forged out of wool and waxed cotton in the Ironwood industrial park and selling across the country and worldwide.

Of course, the caps still do what they have done for 119 years now: stay on your head and keep your ears warm.

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“I’ve had wool Kromers for years,” said Duluth’s Mike Furtman, an avid hunter and outdoor photographer. “But the waxed-cotton versions introduced a few years back are great. They make great duck hunting hats because they are waterproof, come in drab, marsh colors and the brim is just the right length so that it doesn’t interfere with shooting. They are old school. And so am I.”

Kromers have become old-school cool, a symbol of north-woods chic that both real and wannabe adventurers are eagerly buying into.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
A size 7 1/2 waxed rancher Stormy Kromer cap sits on a sizing stand at Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Mich.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I think people see a real value now in things that are made in America, things that work and things that last. Things that are real,’’ said Gina Thorsen. “People are looking for less-disposable things. … And this is a cap you can buy and have it for the rest of your life.”

Thorsen should know. As of July 1, she is the new CEO of Jacquart Fabric Products in this Upper Peninsula town on the Wisconsin border. Jacquart Fabric Products has been making the Stormy Kromer cap there since 2001. Thorsen’s dad, Bob Jacquart, is officially stepping aside as Thorsen becomes the first woman to run the company.

After more than a decade away from her hometown, Thorsen came home to Ironwood to work with her dad and the company in 2009. She’s already played a pivotal role in Stormy Kromer’s rapid growth. Revenues are up 92% since 2017 and have grown 20% annually each of the past two years.

But Stormy Kromer isn’t just a cap company anymore. And, contrary to popular belief, the company wasn’t always based in the U.P.

So here’s the rest of the story.

Who was Stormy Kromer?

George “Stormy” Kromer was a railroad engineer and a semi-pro baseball player more than a century ago, playing and managing the club in his hometown of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, among other teams.

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Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
A portrait of George “Stormy” Kromer hangs in the showroom at Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Mich. Kromer came up with the design for the Stormy Kromer cap.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The story told now is that, back in the early 1900s, Kromer’s job on the railroad required him to look out the window of the moving train often to check the drive wheels on the locomotive to make sure they were greased properly. Needless to say, that could be a cold job in a Wisconsin winter. And he was often losing his favorite caps in the wind.

So Stormy asked his wife, Ida Kromer, to make him a cap with an ear band that would both keep his ears warm and keep the hat snug to his head.

Ida’s design, using a laced ear band that flips up and down as needed, worked. In fact, it worked so well that many of Kromer’s buddies working on the railroad asked her to make caps for them, too. Soon, they were making so many caps that the Kromers decided to start making them as a business.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
George “Stormy” Kromer, right, is pictured in a historic photo of a locomotive seen at Jacquart Fabric Products.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“This cap has survived so long because it was a really nice hat for a working guy,’’ said Bob Jacquart.

In 1903, the Stormy Kromer cap company was born in Kaukauna. Ida did the sewing in her home and Stormy sold the caps out of a suitcase. In 1919, Kromer opened a cap factory in Milwaukee. The winter version became a staple for northwoods loggers, hunters, ice fisherman and other outdoorsmen. A cotton version was favored by railroad men and welders.

In 1965, Kromer sold the company to Richard Grossman, of Milwaukee. (Stormy died in 1970 at 95.) Production was eventually moved to Columbus, Wisconsin, near Madison.

And that’s where the legend of the Stormy Kromer winter cap almost died, too.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
A historic photo of George “Stormy” Kromer, second from right, with his semi-pro baseball team seen at Jacquart Fabric Products. Kromer, a semi-pro baseball player and railroad engineer, kept losing his cap on the train. He asked his wife, Ida, to sew an ear band on his favorite ball cap to keep his ears warm and the hat snug.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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End of the line?

The Wisconsin company was making and selling thousands of cotton railroad-style caps for industrial welders. But sales of the winter-style Stormy Kromer cap had declined to a trickle. Some 80% of the sales were at a handful of stores in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.

By 2000, the company had stopped production of the wool Stormy Kromer cap entirely. (A separate Kromer Cap Co. still makes cloth welding and railroad-style caps, but is unrelated to the Stormy Kromer brand.)

Enter Bob Jacquart. He was trying to keep his small Ironwood sewing company busy as most U.S. textile jobs were moving overseas to China and Mexico. Jacquart Fabric Products was founded in Ironwood in 1958 by Bob’s father, Robert Jacquart, and got its start making the money bags used by businesses to make bank deposits.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Bob Jacquart holds a Stormy Kromer cap while telling the story how he started manufacturing the hats during a factory tour in Ironwood, Mich.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The company stayed in business by specializing in custom cutting and sewing work. Jacquart’s company sewed pet beds, boat covers, motorcycle seats, playground shades, RV awnings and more. So when a buddy who owned a ski and bike shop in Ironwood complained one day about not being able to get Stormy Kromer winter caps to sell any more, Jacquart asked for a phone number. He said he’d buy the company.

And he did, at least the winter cap part of it.

Duluth inventor Dick Swenson still helps run the company at age 88.

“I thought we could use the cap to keep our people busy between contracts,’’ Jacquart said while giving a tour of the family factory recently. Now, a big part of the factory stays busy all year making caps, and the cap you might get as a Christmas present is likely being shipped out this month to retailers across the region.

The Stormy Kromer cap (the name is trademarked) was the perfect fit for the company, Jacquart noted, because it required intricate, detailed sewing of small batches of many sizes and colors — the kind of thing big companies couldn’t do, but that his skilled workforce does well. Still, Jacquart had never made a single cap before.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Diane Oberst, of Ironwood, uses an open-arm cylinder sewing machine to sew the inside band on a Stormy Kromer hat.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I had no idea what I was getting into. This company had never made anything clothing related before,’’ Jacquart confessed. “We threw away probably 3,000 caps trying to get it right.”

The Stormy Kromer comeback, and then some

Eventually, they got it right, and Stormy Kromer caps started coming off the production lines in Ironwood. In 2002, Jacquart traveled to Milwaukee to find an advertising firm to promote the caps. Newspaper and magazine articles and TV shows followed. Word of the very warm, virtually indestructible wool caps with the historic back story spread across the upper Midwest — especially in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota — among folks, men mostly, who worked and played outdoors in cold weather.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Jean Anne Houtari, of Saxon, Wis., sews an ear band for a Stormy Kromer cap.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In 2008, the Stormy Kromer cap made Field & Stream magazine’s “Gear Hall of Fame.” President Barack Obama received a Stormy Kromer cap on a visit to Michigan in 2011. In 2018, Stormy Kromer won a manufacturer’s award as the “Coolest Thing Made in Michigan.”

Now, 60 of the 100 workers at Jacquart Fabric Products are employed exclusively making and shipping Stormy Kromer caps. Production ballooned from just a few colors of only wool caps to include waterproof waxed cotton, nylon and other models.

Other clothing items were added under the Stormy Kromer name — nylon caps, baseball caps, bomber-style hats, T-shirts, mittens, sweaters, vests, coats, coasters and more — some made in Ironwood, some subcontracted out to other companies.

There are now dozens of colors and style options to choose from in every size for men, women and children. (The original, basic wool design is still the most popular. Charcoal, black and red-and-black “buffalo plaid” take turns as the top-selling colors. The women’s model is called the "Ida Kromer." There are even Kromer caps for pets.)

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Finished Stormy Kromer hats are for sale at Jacquart Fabric Products.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In the 80,000 square feet of manufacturing space on 11 acres, the Ironwood company is now making nearly as many caps in a week as the original owners made in a year — 156,000 caps in 2021 alone, Jacquart said. With a retail price of about $45, you can do the math.

The pandemic actually helped the company expand, with more online sales exposure and the seemingly insatiable appetite of people to spend more time outdoors. The caps fly off the shelves at the company store in Ironwood and at stormykromer.com , but also at places like the Duluth Pack Store in Duluth, Joynes Department Store in Grand Marais, and Gustafason’s Smoked Fish near Mackinac, Michigan. The single-biggest Stormy Kromer customer now is Tractor Supply Co., which offers Stormy Kromer products for sale in 250 of its stores nationally.

Stormy Kromer also is forming partnerships with big outdoor brands like REI, Merrell, Carhartt and Wolverine and up-and-comers like Snowtrekker tents. (A Stormy Kromer-branded sauna tent will be coming out soon.)

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Stormy Kromer production manager Becky Maki, of Saxon, Wis., uses a sewing machine to attach the ear band to a Stormy Kromer cap.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Now, at 69, Bob Jacquart is stepping aside and handing the reins to Gina. (Bob’s not going anywhere: He will serve as chairman of the board and chief tour guide as well as remaining active in economic development efforts in the U.P.)

But Thorsen, 46, has a clear vision of what she wants for Stormy Kromer going forward. It’s not just a style of cap, she says, it’s a lifestyle brand. And why not? If Duluth Pack can grow out of Minnesota to be more than duffels, and LL Bean grow out of Maine to be much more than boots, Stormy Kromer can expand beyond the U.P. to more than caps.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Gina Thorsen, the new CEO of Stormy Kromer as of July 1, gives a factory tour.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s about growth now, taking it from a regional to a national brand. We are doing very well in the Upper Midwest. … We’re making some progress in the mountain west, like Montana. But there’s no reason we can’t also be big in other states where it gets cold, where people have the same kind of values and outdoor traditions, like Oregon and Washington, New England and Alaska,” Thorsen said. Maybe even the cold countries of Europe, too. “And we’ll keep making more right here.”

Duluth-made waxed canvas packs are available to rent by the day.

Lifetime guarantee

The Stormy Kromer Lifetime Guarantee program started in 2010 when the company began sewing a unique serial number into each cap. If you purchased a Stormy Kromer cap with a serial number and it wears out due to poor workmanship, faulty material, or production defects, the company will replace it free of charge.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
Bob Jacquart talks about the story behind the Stormy Kromer cap.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Stormy Kromer insurance policy

Customers who register their Stormy Kromer cap can get 50% off a new cap if their original becomes lost, stolen or destroyed within three years of purchase. No questions asked.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
A wall full of signatures seen at Jacquart Fabric Products. Visitors to the factory are invited to sign the wall.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Tour the Stormy Kromer factory and store

The factory where Stormy Kromer hats are made is open for public tours with reservations necessary. Tours are limited to 10 people. Go to stormykromer.com/factory-tour or call 888-455-2253. Tours last 45-60 minutes.

The Stormy Kromer Factory Store is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.

The factory and store are located in the Ironwood Industrial Park at 1238 Wall St. Ironwood is about two hours from Duluth on U.S. Highway 2.

Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
An advertisement for the Kromer Cap from the November 1927 issue of The Locomotive Engineers Journal is displayed at Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Mich.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Wool caps with ear bands being made in factory
The inner liners of Stormy Kromer caps wait to be attached. The label tells the story of the Stormy Kromer cap.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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