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Rocky Mountain News - Romancing the West

JANUARY 11, 2001

Romancing the West

Western clothier Jack A. Weil puts his brand on Wazee Street

By Mark Wolf, News Staff Writer

 

Jack A. Weil, founder and president of Rockmount Ranch Wear, sits at a crowded desk waiting for a customer to return a phone call.

He works within roping distance of his son, Jack B., and within branding distance of his grandson, Steve. Both are vice presidents in the tri-generational family Western-wear manufacturing business.

The founder will work until about 2 p.m., run errands, then home. It's not the 10 to 12 hours that once were his norm.

Then again, it's more of a workday than your average 99-year-old puts in. And it begins every morning when he drives himself to work.

 

Jack A. Weil

Occupation: president, Rockmount Ranch Wear

Age: 99

Family: A son, Jack B. Weil, and a daughter, Jane Rombert of Steamboat Springs, five grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren.

On retirement: "I think I'm retired now when I work four or five hours a day instead of 10 or 12 hours."

On longevity: "My father lived to be 91. My genes are good. I was athletic as a kid. I grew up in a town with a lot of Germans, and there were several turnvereins (gymnasiums). I didn't smoke until I was 40, and I quit when I was 60."

Honored: He received the first Pioneer Award from the Western/English Retailers Association. He will be honored for his contributions to the industry Friday during the Denver International Western/English Apparel and Equipment Market, an international wholesale trade show that begins Friday at the Denver Merchandise Mart.

"How else do you think I'd get here?" retorts the man who turns 100 on March 28.

There was a time in his life when an automotive commute seemed downright suspicious.

"My father was in the cattle business and we had a horse and buggy," he said. "We'd ride beside the river to cool off, and here would come one of those horseless carriages with a spare tire. My father would say, `I never needed a spare leg for my horses.' "

His father was an immigrant from France, and a copy of his naturalization certificate hangs on the wall in Jack Weil's office.

Leaving the family spread near Evansville, Ind., he entered the business world and worked for the A. Stein company out of Chicago, selling Paris Garters in several Midwestern cities before the company sent him West in 1928. He and his late wife, Bea, drove a Chrysler Roadster (serial number 33) out old U.S. 40, arriving on the outskirts of Denver on a sunny day.

"I saw the afternoon sun shining on the Rocky Mountains and turned and said to my wife, `This is it.' Denver was a great city, about 200,000 people. There were cops on the corners directing traffic," he said.

Weil opened an A. Stein office on Champa Street with a newfangled neon sign that flashed "Garters" and "Suspenders." By 1932 he'd partnered with Phil Miller in the Western-apparel company that eventually would become Miller Stockman. He left in 1946 to form Rockmount, intent on making distinctive, high-quality wear for ranchers and cowboys.

"They wore overalls when they worked, but they wanted colorful stuff when they came to town," he said.

Weil began to put snaps on his Rockmount shirts instead of buttons.

"It was a breakaway," he said. "If your shirt got caught on the saddle, the snaps would let you loose."

The innovation caught on, but he realized his market had to expand beyond working ranch hands.

"The cowboy business wasn't an industry," he said. "There wasn't enough of them, and they didn't make enough money. They'd come to town, get drunk and the next month do it again. I felt there was a market from Middle Westerners and Easterners and we could take advantage of the popularity of Western movies. In the East you had to make it casual wear. I saw an opportunity to make a difference."

He had shrewd marketing and promotion ideas for the Western look.

"I thought the market was rodeos. I went to Cheyenne and talked to the Chamber of Commerce and said they had to dress everybody up Western (for Frontier Days). If they didn't dress up, they could have a kangaroo court, fine them and give the money to charity," he said during his daily lunch at a corner table of The Tavern in the Denver Athletic Club, where he sips ginger ale from a wine glass.

Stories from the old days bubble up, told with a ready laugh.

There was the time when a man from Biloxi, Miss., found himself in possession of a lot in Denver and wanted to trade it for a saddle.

"It was out on Ninth Avenue, a block from Monaco. Three of us said we'd trade a $250 saddle for it," he said.

And there's the set of longhorns displayed prominently in the showroom. Jack B., who joined the business in 1954 and is secretary of the Colorado Republican party, took them to settle a debt from a merchant in Oklahoma.

He said he started the style of rolling up the sides of cowboy hats "so four cowboys could sit side by side in a pickup."

"You can deduce that I like this business," he said. "You could make more money at something else. I'm humble and thankful I had this opportunity and that I had the acumen to take advantage of it."

Rockmount's shirts, skirts, hats, bolo ties, belts and other Western wear are sold at more than 2,500 stores in the United States and around the world, from swanky shops on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles to small-town clothiers. They have been worn by actors in numerous movies, including Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan in Flesh and Bone, Nicolas Cage in Red Rock West and Aidan Quinn in Practical Magic, and by musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Loretta Lynn.

The company has been in its Wazee Street headquarters since its opening in 1946. What is now trendy LoDo -- Rockmount sits next to Mongolian Barbecue and across the street from Il Fornaio -- was once a wholesale and warehouse district.

Wazee Street has been renamed Jack A. Weil Boulevard through March to commemorate the longevity of both the founder and the business. Rockmount is committed to staying in its historic 1908 building and recently put the building's second floor on the office rental market.

Jack A. has always been mechanically minded. He bought an automated billing machine back in the 1950s and today works on a desktop computer. If there's a business disagreement with someone, the founder has the trump card: "I tell them I was in the business before they were born and I'll be in the business after they're gone."

Many years ago, he told a reporter: "The West is not a geographic location. It's a state of mind."

And it's firmly Jack A. Weil's state of mind.

"There's a feeling in the West of youth, new country, the possibility of expansion and growth.

"To me, coming to Colorado was a romance."

 

2001 © The E.W. Scripps Co.

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