I got my first Woolrich hunting suit when I was 16 years old. My dad bought it for me from J. H. Shoop and Sons in Freeport, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t much of a surprise, considering that I worked at the store at the time, but it was a great gift nonetheless.
Shoop’s was then the oldest family-owned clothing store in the US. I remember being at work the day the letter arrived (from whatever entity keeps track of such things) giving formal notification of that fact to John Shoop, scion of the family and store owner. Brooks Brothers had been sold to a corporate interest and was no longer family-owned; J. H. Shoop and Sons had moved from #2 on the list to the top spot.
Shoop’s had been founded in 1830. While working there, I learned that one secret to surviving well into your second century is to offer quality products. For Shoop’s at that time, this meant carrying Levi’s jeans (established in 1873), Florsheim shoes (1892), and Woolrich coats and shirts. Woolrich, coincidentally, also originated in Pennsylvania in 1830 – the same year that Shoop’s opened, albeit about 170 miles away. Stores that stand the test of time sell products that stand the test of time.
When he bought me that hunting suit, my father was continuing a long family tradition. Befitting a clan that has lived in rural Pennsylvania since the 1750’s, the Hilliards have used Woolrich products for generations. My grandad owned a Woolrich hunting coat. His father, in turn, always wore a red and black vest in his later years, which I suspect was a Woolrich Railroad Vest.
Never one to be bound by custom, though, Dad opted for safety over heritage with my hunting suit: a parka and pants, both 100% blaze orange. The warmth was provided by an amazing new breakthrough called Thinsulate. Lighter than other fabrics, but just as warm, it promised to be the material of the future. Considering that was nearly 35 years ago and many companies are still selling Thinsulate-lined garments today, it seems to have made good on that promise.
I wore that hunting suit for over a decade. Over time, however, I noticed it was getting a little tighter around the midsection. Apparently, I wasn’t quite as slim as I had been at 16. As a result, my Woolrich didn’t fit anymore and it was time to spring for a brand new one.
Or was it?
Around that time, I’d become more familiar with the history of Woolrich and their unique connection to Pennsylvania hunters, at that time over one million strong. Unlike Dad, I’m all about tradition so I decided I wanted an old-fashioned red and black Woolrich Classic Hunt Coat.
Luckily, considering that I was a new father on a limited budget, I made another discovery. Because they last so long, there’s an excellent market for second-hand Woolrich hunting coats. After a few weeks of checking the classifieds (yeah, we did that back in the pre-Craigslist and pre-eBay 1990’s), I found an elderly widow who was selling her late husband’s Classic Hunt Coat.
When I got to her house, I found that she actually had two 1960-era coats for sale, one a size 48 and one a size 50, and she was willing to sell them both to me for $75. Convinced I’d never need a size 50 coat, I decided to go with just the smaller one. Now, nearly 25 years later and a few pounds heavier, I’m kind of wishing I had a mulligan on that call.
What I was truly hoping to find in her basement that day but didn’t was both a Woolrich coat and pants, officially known as the Woolrich Big Game Hunter’s Suit, but widely celebrated as the ‘Pennsylvania Tuxedo.’ As I said above, I’m all about tradition and heritage. When this particular outfit is singled out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is famous enough to have its own beer named after it, I ask you – how much more tradition and heritage do you need?
Years later, when I wrote the book A Season on the Allegheny, I made sure to work a mention of the Pennsylvania Tuxedo into it. I felt this was important considering that the book is as much about the Keystone State and the history of the Allegheny National Forest as it is about hunting. Not at all coincidentally, this passage appears in the chapter entitled “Traditions”:
The first hunters left [camp to go deer hunting] at 5:40 AM; I was out the door at 5:55. I happened to follow the Rileys out and I made a point to tell Bruce, who was clad from his neck to his ankles in red and black plaid Woolrich wool coat and pants, that I liked his outfit. I pointed to my own identical coat.
“You’ve got the pants, too, though,” I noted, and before I could say the words, he announced with a grin, “A Pennsylvania Tuxedo.” The term references the hordes of Pennsylvania hunters who clothed themselves in Woolrich’s familiar black-on-deep-cherry-red plaid so frequently that the full coat and pants ensemble became known as the Pennsylvania Tuxedo. Yet another Pennsylvania deer hunting tradition carried forward.
What I didn’t mention in the book is that I was also wearing a second Woolrich product under my coat, a Buffalo Check Wool Shirt. Woolrich has been making this classic for even longer than the Hunt Coat and they’ve gotten it right. My dark brown/black version appears virtually brand new, even though it’s about two decades old.
Sadly, though, my Classic Hunt Coat is finally beginning to show signs of wear. Most of the outer shell is just fine – somewhere over the past 185+ years, Woolrich apparently perfected the alchemy of spinning wool into iron – but the inner cotton lining is starting to go and I’ve lost a couple of buttons (like I said, I probably should’ve grabbed the bigger coat when I had a chance).
Considering that my coat is well over half a century old, I guess I shouldn’t be too disappointed. But it will be a sad day indeed when I finally have to retire it. It’s been my companion on virtually every winter outing for the last 25 years, keeping me warm while I hunted deer, hauled firewood, and plowed snow in single-digit temperatures.
When I do finally break down and buy a replacement, it will unquestionably be another Woolrich Classic Hunt Coat. It is truly a product that has stood the test of time, for both the company and me personally. I don’t see any reason to buy anything else. And I imagine I’ll be adding a pair of Wool Cargo Hunting Pants as well. At long last, I’ll have a full Pennsylvania Tuxedo.
Until then, I’ll be working on my next book, a historical novel about a Union spy in the Civil War. Interestingly, Woolrich has a connection there as well. They are the only US woolen mill still in production that supplied Union troops during the Civil War. If I can find an opportunity, maybe I’ll sneak a little mention of the company into that book, too.
By the way, in case you’re wondering whatever happened to that first Woolrich hunting suit I got from my dad, fear not. It’s still hanging in my garage. My oldest daughter wears it regularly when hunting or working in the horse barn. It’s taken a beating from those activities over the years, but it’s still in great shape. After all, it’s not even 35 years old.
For a Woolrich garment, that’s only about middle-aged.
In 2012, Rob published A Season on the Allegheny, which is available in both paperback and ebook formats at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets. He is currently working on a Civil War spy novel, which is due out in 2017.