As a resident of Cheltenham Township around the turn of the century John Batterson Stetson, along with his hats and his concern for his employees was legendary. His residence on Old York Road near what is now Juniper Avenue in the area called Ashbourne, now Elkins Park, was a "palace" he named Idro. Built in the late 1880's of local stone, "Idro" means "cool and pleasant" in the Russian language. His business, however, was in Philadelphia.
John B. Stetson was one of 12 children of Stephen and Susan Balderson Stetson. He was born in 1830 in Orange, New Jersey. His father was a batter and John left school early to learn the batter's trade. He soon became ill and was sent to Colorado until his health improved. While in the West he was impressed with the local style of a 10-gallon hat. In later years the manufacture of "The Boss of the Plains," as he called his version, was his signature hat.
Young John returned East in 1865, settled in Philadelphia and opened a hat repair business in a one-room shop on the northeast corner of 7th and Callowhill Streets. In a short time his talent for trimming led him to manufacturing hats. Insisting on a policy of "none but that of sterling quality", his business improved so rapidly that he needed larger quarters in just over a year. He moved his business to 4th Street above Chestnut and in no time his hats were being sold in most of the retail establishments in Philadelphia.
His novel idea of using traveling salesmen in 1869 created the need for more space to manufacture more hats. Another novel idea of his, to move his factory to the quiet northeast area of the City, gave him the space he needed. Eventually those 12 acres held five and six-story hat factory buildings and the Stetson Hospital.
His aim "to do good work at fair prices" as well as his taking good care of his employees, their families and the factory neighborhood non-employees, separated this man from the usual manufacturers of the time.
To start with, his factory buildings were built of brick, had automatic sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers on every floor and many other safety devices. His manufacturing equipment was of superb quality making his plant the best hat manufacturing facility in the world.
He then set up one of the most liberal apprenticeship programs of that day. Mr. Stetson paid above scale wages and bonuses tied to attainment levels. He provided quite a few rooms in his factory for his employees to use for their religious, social and other activities. Later, one room was expanded and opened to neighborhood people as well. It is reported to have had a fine organ and space enough to accommodate 2,000 people. There was also a library and parlor for evening socials. Professional entertainment and a 111 orchestra were provided every Saturday night, in fact, there was activity every night of the week.
Because of Mr. Stetson's patriotic bend, he organized a military company of young male employees. He had them outfitted and trained and even set up an armory.
His concern for his employees' well-being showed itself in his establishing a dispensary which later grew to take care of neighborhood people also. It contained the newest equipment and was staffed by highly skilled professionals. For those unable to pay, the minimal charge of $1.00 for three months' service and treatment, it was provided free of charge. As the need grew larger, Mr. Stetson built a free hospital on the land adjacent to his factory building. Another major assistance he provided for his workers was to establish the John B. Stetson Building Association which gave them below-market rate loans.
Outside of his own business world he was an important contributor to the YMCA and many other Philadelphia charities. In 1888 he endowed an academy in DeLand, Florida, the University of DeLand, which later changed its name to Stetson University. The college offered liberal arts, music and business curriculums. At present it has a college of law in St. Petersburg, Florida, also. John B. Stetson died in 1906. He is interred in the family Mausoleum in the Ashland section of West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
After his death, his son G. Henry Stetson ran the company until styles of dress changed so much that hat sales declined. The plant was closed in 1971. In 1977 the buildings were given to the City of Philadelphia. During the Depression his Elkins Park estate was sold and the mansion razed. A road in the area carries the Stetson name.
Prepared by Lois H. Hirsch