By Mikael Krummel

Hat Tricks

It’s not that Mike Miller has practiced his craft all that long. Or that he absorbed his artisan skills sitting at the feet of a master. Or that he trained at a prestigious trade school. But the guy sure knows how to make hats—exquisite, hand-crafted vintage- and Western-style hats.

Yep, Miller’s an old-school, custom hatmaker––the only one of his kind in town. He’s self-taught and quality-obsessed, a throwback to times when everybody, every day wore hats for form and function. “There’s not too many things new when it comes to hats,” says Miller. “They’ve been around for thousands of years.”

Hats can be measured by multiple standards: size, style, materials, and detail. For Miller, self-pride is directly proportional to his investment in a hat’s finish. “I do some of the detail work that nobody does anymore. I didn’t invent the details,” says Miller, “I took them from some of the vintage hats I’ve worked on over the years. [There are] some neat tricks. Sometimes they had special machinery that produced the tricks, and I don’t have those machines. But I’ve figured out ways to do what I do.”

Most premium hatmakers source their felt from the same vendors. Beaver felt trumps rabbit. The “killing” process used to age felt is key to differences found in the texture of the final product. Water soaks versus dry blocking lends degrees of stiffness or softness to a hat. Details like sweatbands, ribbons, and stitching all contribute to the elegance of the final product.

Miller has refined his approach by merging techniques and materials. The result is hats that match the quality of the best custom hatmakers and exceed the quality of premium factory-produced chapeaus, yet cost hundreds of dollars less. No small trick.

Miller is also a big believer in a customer’s choice. Unless a buyer requests Miller’s view on matters such as style and color, he lets their personal tastes reign over his own opinions. “In the end, it’s about the smile on their face when they put the hat on their head,” he says. “That’s what I’m after. I’m after their happiness.”

Finding Resistance

Woodsmen harvesting white pines in the hills surrounding Cottage Grove first spotted it in the 1950s: white pine blister rust. The pathogen migrated from Europe to the East Coast at the turn of the 20th century. By mid-century it had moved west, putting hundreds of thousands of West Coast pines in jeopardy. What were they to do?

The first thought was to cut off infected bark and limbs. Then efforts turned to the eradication of gooseberries and currents—secondary hosts for blister rust spores. But both strategies proved largely fruitless. That’s when forest workers first noticed that certain individual white pines seemed resistant to the disease. In 1966, the U.S. Forest Service responded by establishing the Dorena Genetic Resource Center.

“Part of what we’re doing,” says Brianna McTeague, a biologist at Dorena, “is identifying disease-resistant trees so we can target those trees for protection.” That’s no small challenge, given that 99 percent of white pines are susceptible to blister rust. Yet, the challenge is being met.

Key activities at Dorena represent the scientific method in action: collect pine cones to harvest seeds; plant seeds and grow trees for two years; put trees in the world’s largest inoculation chamber and infect them with disease-bearing fungus; track results for six years, measuring the severity of disease symptoms; rate resistance of specific parent trees; and save seed stock from the most durable family offspring.

The approach has led to the successful replanting of once-decimated white pine stands at Crater Lake, a renewed Port Orford cedar population in the Redwood National Forest, and new sugar pine and Port Orford stands at Warm Springs Reservation. The results also have implications for other tree species much farther afield.

Geneticist Richard Sniezko is passionate about the ecological implications of his work at the Dorena Center. “We’re hoping to balance the equation,” says Sniezko. “We’ll never get to where things once were, to where we’ve gotten rid of all the disease and made all trees immune. But we’re hoping to balance it in a way that’s durable and, if we’re lucky, will maybe last forever!”

Cutting Edges

Armizare (are-mit-TZAR-ay) is a martial arts system once favored by aristocratic warriors in medieval Europe. Its roots date back 1,500 years, and its techniques were first expertly codified in a series of manuscripts authored 600 years ago by an Italian, Maestro d’Armi Fiore.

The Northwest Fencing Academy offers armizare instruction based on the writings of Fiore. Academy classes also provide fundamental and mastery-level training in hand-to-hand European martial arts skills: wrestling and the use of daggers, swords, shields, poleaxes, and improvised weapons.

Maestro d’Armi Sean Hayes is the founder and head instructor of the academy. The school recently relocated from the Churchill area to new facilities in downtown Eugene. The move has helped contribute to increased enrollment and expanded class offerings. Students range from teens to seniors.

Hayes says he was “immediately drawn to the physicality” of fencing as a young man. In the 1990s, he pursued masters studies in the sport at San Jose State University. He established the Fencing Academy in Eugene as a modern school for historical European martial arts. 

According to Hayes, European and Asian martial arts traditions have many parallels: both involve combat on the ground and horseback; both embrace a variety of weapons used with overlapping techniques; and both incorporate armor and armorless combat. Though there are differences rooted in Christian cultural perspectives versus Japanese religious traditions, both approaches place strong emphasis on the integration of body and mind.

It’s a core notion, Hayes contends, that plays out as a demand for alternating attention to intellectualism and intuition during combat situations. To reinforce the point, he cites a passage from a 14th-century Fiore manuscript: “When you come to face off against somebody, you should immediately assess them. Are they young or old? Are they strong or small? Do they stand in the darts of the art or do they stand in some other way? Make these assessments. This is how you will proceed.”

Hayes hesitates a moment as he reflects on lessons learned from personal experience. “In competition,” he offers, “once the blades engage, you can no longer think. You simply have to feel, understand, and respond.”