Gazing down the two rows of snow-frosted storefronts that vaguely define main street here, a visitor would hardly suspect that the grandmothers of Bristol are in the process of changing the landscape of the American head.
Since early fall, in the privacy of their home sewing rooms, about 15 women have been busily stuffing, quilting and attaching wings, horns and feelers onto one-quarter of a million baseball caps. The$9-items have been snatched up by Americans faster than they can be shipped from the old grain mill here that houses Freemountain Toys, the company that markets the laughproducing chapeaux.
In Georgetown, Red Balloon Toy Shop owner Bob Joy reports that shipments of 24 get sold within an hour of arrival at his store. Around the corner at The Great Chase, Freda Wagner says she's never seen anything like it.
"They're dynamite," she declares. "Everybody likes to feel silly -- and you sure feel silly with wings on your head."
In a bar in New York one night last week, a woman offered a crisp $100-bill for a blue cap with red wings. She protested when the wearer called her extravagant, explaining that they were available in stores for less than $10.
"I'm taking the night flight to Austin," she explained. "And I want to get off the plane in Texas wearing that hat."
This madness started innocently enough last winter when Free-mountain's Beverly Red took delivery of her new BMW 530 I. Like any good American, Red figured that a new car deserved a new hat and, come on guys, there's nothing better than a baseball cap. So she bought a navy blue one, drove back to the mill here, walked through the old wooden doors -- and suddenly had the kind of eureka flash that must have hit Archimedes when the gold crown fell into the bathtub.
"I liked it," Red says, "but it was missing something. So I sewed a couple of horns on it and it felt much better, like it was alive. I like animating things that aren't animated."
You have to understand that Beverly Red is not new to this process. In 1975, at the age of 27, she started Freemountain Toys with a line of little guys called Vegimals: stuffed carrots and tomatoes and broccoli and a pea pod with a zipper stuffed with smiling peas.
"I mean, peas aren't people," she says, "but they can have a life for children. It was just something a little subtle."
And it took off. Including the hats. Freemountain now has 43 items in its catalogue. Two years ago Red bought the old grain mill here to house her expanding business -- and of course named it The Vegimill. Last year "something under $6 million" worth of merchandise was shipped from The Vegimill, and toymaking had replaced logging as Bristol's biggest business.
Yet in the four years of oddly independent marketing Freemountain achieved, nothing had ever exploded with the kind of hysterical intensity that created the hats. It's classic American success story, almost internally metaphorical: giving a baseball cap wings, changing a traditional form into a lighthearted laugh.
Washingtonian Barbara Strong says she was sitting in Mr. Smith's on M Street a few weeks ago, "and this guy got up and put it on and just sort of winged away. It was wonderful."
"I bought two because they're so crazy," says Dennis Frye, another Washingtonian. "I really hope the company can't ship them too fast because then everybody would have one and... oh, I guess I'm not being very democratic."
Beverly Red's own experience is almost as varied as the products she designs and sells. The daughter of a Shaker Heights, Ohio, insurance broker, she first came to Vermont to study sculpture at Bennington College. She went home to Cleveland for a work term, and got a job at the American Greeting Card Co., designing stuffed dogs for flocked greeting cards.
"I started making quilts in college, and I used to make toys when friends would have a baby," she say. "I used would have a baby," she says. "I used bags filled with toys. I had all these creatures and one of them was a carrot. I was visiting some friends once and they said, 'Why don't you make a line of vegetables and we'll sell them to Campbell's Soup and make a million dollars?' I did it and I was staying somewhere else and somebody thought the bags were garbage and just threw them out. So I forget about that idea for a while."
After she graduated, she took a job at the University of Vermont, working as a secretary. Eventually, she says, she checked herself into Marathon House, a New England drug rehabilitation program. "I wasn't exactly a junkie, but I had the mentality of a drug addict and I knew I had to do something about it." After eight months, she left and married one of the counselors. Two years later, she was divorced. "And one morning" she says, "I just woke up and said, 'It's time to take control of my own life.'" Thus the Vegimals were born.
"I went to a man at the state department of economic development and community affairs," she says, "and he told me, 'First, you have to do this, you need a table like this, this is what a cutting machine is... '" She is wandering around the Vegimiill, pointing at the equipment the man had told her about. It's all nestled comfortably in the odd-shaped oak rooms of the old mill. People are scurrying about, cutting material, stuffing Vegimals, packing boxes.
Most of the 15 people who work in the mill seem like natural woodsy types. There's a slight contrast in Red: A classy blouse and natty tweed jacket set her apart. "This is one of our new toys," she says, pulling out a brown and white eagle. It's like me -- short with big feet." She keeps climbing up through the four floors of the mill. Rock 'n' roll is piped into all the rooms; her office sits above it all, with huge windows giving a view to the mountains. It's surprisingly warm inside, despite the cold wind outside. "I never look at the heating bills," she says. "Why bum yourself out?"
Beverly Red could call it quits now. When Freemountain introduced its hat line at a crafts fair this summer, buyers responded so enthusiastically that the company had to up prices from $5 to $10 just so it wouldn't run out before the fair was over.
"This hat business is amazing," she says. "But I presume it'll be a shortterm thing. In a year they'll go away. I guess I'm starting to feel like this business is getting a liggle too big. People are copying our toys and I have money for suits planned in this year's budget. And I don't like the idea of charging whatever the market will bear. I've personally gotten more and more interested in spiritual things. I think I'm ready to sell."
Although she's a self-proclaimed loner ("It's strange being a woman here living alone, running a business, being the only person in town who jogs"), there seems to be a real camaraderie between Red and her workers, both in the mill among here peers and around town in the homes of older women who are busily turning out hats for her at the piece-work rate of $4.75 for every dozen they complete.
"I think," whe says, "that anyone who walked in here when we're really busy would have to think we're nuts. We're all running around talking about horns and wings and peas and pig feet and bear arms and legs. I try not to connect my life with my toys. I think of this as zen capitalism. There are so many people around who think they're socialists. You wake up a socialist in the middle of the night and shake him, and he's a capitalist. I like being able to give people jobs, especially old women and people with kids."
She leans back against her desk, and hugs a stuffed eagle.
"You know," she says, "I started all this four years ago to put some order in my life. In April, Playboy is supposed to do a spread of nude women wearing my hats. I think it's a scream."
And Beverly Red looks a bit puzzle.
"It constantly surprises me," she says, "that I can make people laugh."