Jack A. Weil surveys the street outside of Rockmount Ranch Wear. He's been doing business here for 55 years, since the days when Wazee Street was lined with warehouses, shops and factories rather than restaurants and offices and lofts. The five-story Rockmount building at 1626 Wazee, built in 1908, housed a plow factory and then a drugstore before it became the headquarters of a wholesale Western-wear empire.
A great deal has changed since 1946 -- including the street's name. At the moment, it's "Jack A. Weil Boulevard," the title it acquired, at least temporarily, earlier this year to honor Jack's contributions to Denver. He's the man who showed us how the West was worn.
But while Jack is a man who understands the importance of image, a master of marketing, a peddler who knows how to sell the sizzle and the steak, even he is surprised by what's happened to this neighborhood, a neighborhood that didn't get its fancy new nickname of "LoDo" until Rockmount had been part of it for forty years. "Nobody could have foreseen what's going on down here," he says.
And Jack A. Weil has seen a great deal.
Today he's wearing his usual cowboy boots, a black-and-white Western shirt with the snap buttons that he invented, and a bolo tie featuring a shiny silver dollar dating from 1901 -- the year Jack was born in Evansville, Indiana.
His first job, back in high school in 1918, was at a factory in Chicago, inspecting Navy dungarees that would soon be shipped out to sailors fighting The Great War. Ten years later he was a salesmen for Paris Garters -- a Chicago company that offered not just men's garters, but just about anything made of latex -- when he was given the choice of trading his Memphis-based territory for a new office in Denver, covering everything from El Paso to the Canadian border. So he and his wife got in their brand-new Chrysler Roadster -- "That was a hot car," he remembers, unlike the Plymouth he drives from his home in Cheesman Park to his office five days a week -- and headed west. They drove into town from Topeka on unpaved (but graded) Highway 40, and "we fell in love with this country," he says. "To see all the wide-open space, to see the future, I knew I was home."
But Weil soon stretched far beyond the elastic business.
Along the way, he became friends with Phil Miller, who'd moved to Denver to get help for his tuberculosis, leaving brothers and a hat business back in New York. At one point those brothers sent along a load of cowboy hats that Phil was going to try to sell at the old Denver Dry, which had a spanking-new Western department in its 15th Street addition. But the hats didn't move -- not even when 25,000 Elks came to town. No marketing, Jack pointed out. "What the hell do you know about cowboy hats in Indiana?" Phil asked.
Jack knew enough to get a directory of county newspapers in Kansas, and they placed ads in a few for the Stockman Farmer Supply Company, "selling ten-dollar hats for five bucks," Jack remembers. "Sold every hat." And not just hats: Ranchers were soon asking for belts, gloves and all kinds of gear.
When Jack suggested that Phil grab the reins and manufacture his own shirts, his friend issued a challenge of his own. "I've got the money if you want to come and make the shirts," he said. And Jack, who was ready to stop traveling, did just that, taking a one-sixth ownership in Miller Stockman. "The first thing I did was get rid of the 'Farmer,'" Jack says.
Jack might not have known much about Western wear, but he knew about marketing -- and he also recognized that you couldn't make much money off of cowboys. "If they had any sense, they wouldn't have been cowboys," he points out. "But I thought there was a tremendous future in promoting this thing." So Jack went up to Cheyenne and convinced the chamber of commerce not only to link its Cheyenne Frontier Days with the Union Pacific Railroad that stopped through town twice a day, but also to fine its members when they didn't dress Western -- in a Miller Stockman shirt and hat, perhaps? -- at the proper time of year.
"I didn't know anything about the business, but I knew what I wanted," he says. "In my love for the country and its potential, I figured we had a product. I knew how I felt about it. I knew about the romance of the country."
And soon he knew about snap buttons, an innovation he added to Western shirts after the Second World War, as soon as the metal shortage eased. In 1946, Jack used those snap buttons as the basis for his own business: Rockmount Ranch Wear.
Since then, Rockmount snap-button Western shirts have been spotted on celebrities across the country and around the world. The Rockmount office is filled with photographs of people wearing the shirts -- Jodie Foster, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Hopper -- as well as original garments dating back to the '40s, some procured by Weil family friends at thrift stores. That's not all the cluttered Rockmount office holds, of course. There are also blowups of the 1988 Esquire cover featuring Bruce Springsteen in a Rockmount bolo -- "made in the USA." More bolos line the cluttered wholesale sample room, along with neckties, string ties, bandannas, hats covered with fake fur, hats made of straw, hats made of wood, belt buckles with portraits of John Wayne, belt buckles with American coins ("I knew those would go over well with people from other countries," Jack says). Hanging from the walls are still more clippings, and cards from fans around the world, and awards for Jack A. Weil: a 1986 Pioneer Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award presented in 1995, even though Jack was nowhere near done with his achievements. And there's even a signed photo of President Ronald Reagan. "When he was elected, he started talking about a 'service economy,'" Jack remembers. "I wrote back that when I was growing up in Evansville, only a hundred miles from where he grew up in Dixon, 'servicing' was what happened when we took the mare to stud."
Still, Jack's a good Republican who regularly offers the final nominating speech when Jack B. Weil, his son and a Rockmount vice president, runs for yet another position with the state Republican Party. Jack B.'s son, Steve, joined the company twenty years ago, bringing with him an MBA and marketing ideas of his own (those are his snap buttons you click on Rockmount's Web site). Steve's now pushing a plan that will help keep Rockmount -- one of lower downtown's last undeveloped warehouses, and its oldest, if not only, manufacturing company -- in officially historic LoDo. "It's our concession to changes in the neighborhood," Steve says. "It's a compromise that allows us to stay." And so the Weils are now looking for an office tenant to take over the second floor, a move that will help fund the long-term preservation of the building -- and the Weil business.
A living, breathing monument to our past, and our future.
"Everyone likes this stuff," Jack says. "It's the romance."
As the Rockmount slogan proclaims, "Styled in the West by Westerners since 1946." Even if those Westerners started out in Indiana and arrived here not on horseback, but in a hot Chrysler Roadster.
On Thursday, the sign that changed Wazee Street to Jack A. Weil Boulevard will come down, replaced by one honoring the late Dale Tooley, a Denver district attorney of the Irish persuasion. St. Patrick's Day revelers will drop by the bars that have sprung up since Jack A. came to town, and they'll eat in the fancy restaurants -- "The food's better," says Steve, "and more costly," says Jack -- and, if they have any sense at all, they'll raise their glasses and toast the old brick warehouse.
Because even if his name disappears from the signs at the end of the month, this will always be Jack A. Weil's street.
When he turned 95, Jack was honored by Denver City Council and asked what he wanted to do when he turned 100. To appear there again, he replied.
And so he'll be back in front of city council on March 26, two days before his hundredth birthday. "And what the hell," he wonders, "am I going to ask for now?"
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