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Ursula Trudeau and Max pose wearing favorite hats surrounded by dozens of others at the Saranac Laboratory in Saranac Lake.  Photo:  Todd Moe
Ursula Trudeau and Max pose wearing favorite hats surrounded by dozens of others at the Saranac Laboratory in Saranac Lake. Photo: Todd Moe

Saranac Lake's queen of hats

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Some of Ursula Trudeau's favorite hats are on display at the historic Saranac Laboratory in Saranac Lake. Ursula Trudeau is known in the community for her collection of colorful hats, many of which are works of art in their own right. She's the widow of Dr. Frank Trudeau, whose grandfather founded the laboratory for the study of tuberculosis in 1894.

The exhibit, organized by the Historic Saranac Lake staff, includes hats from China, Morocco, Russia, and designers from Montreal and New York City. You'll find straw hats, top hats, cowboy hats, garden party hats and even a native American headdress. Todd Moe stopped by as the hats, and hat boxes, were being arranged for the summer show.

You're invited to tonight's opening reception for the "A Life in Hats" exhibit from 5:00-7:00 in the John Black Room of the Saranac Laboratory.

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Reported by

Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

The Saranac Laboratory Museum has been open since 2009 with exhibits on science, patient care and Saranac Lake history. For this, the museum’s first art exhibition, Historic Saranac Lake, relied on the expertise of local artist Dianne Leifheit. She helped design the exhibit and even created a caricature of Ursula and her little dog Max to help market the hat show.

Artist Diane Leifheit's cartoon of Ursula and Max as part of the show's promotion.
Artist Diane Leifheit's cartoon of Ursula and Max as part of the show's promotion.
“I went over to Ursula’s house. I’d been over there several times before in her studio where all of these hats abide when they’re not here. And they live on top of all kinds of stands, on art easels, inside closets, in boxes and underneath stuff. And I said ‘okay, we’re going to just take 25, because more than that and people will get bored. So I stopped writing after 45 and then I went away for a vacation. When I came back, apparently Ursula came back with 20 more.

"I think as far as the community goes, like the reaction when the announcement went online to Facebook, there were not just likes but shares. That’s when you know people are really looking. Everybody was like, ‘I love this! This is her!’”.

There were about 70 hats on display earlier this week to Historic Saranac Lake in the laboratory on Church Street. And behind every hat there is a story and that’s the fun part. Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania says it’s been a wonderful opportunity to get to know Ursula better.

Todd Moe: Do you have a favorite hat as you look around as you help put the show together? Is there something that kind of catches your eye as you scan the show?

Amy Catania: You know, that’s a hard question. I’ve gotten very attached to them I have to say. Really the ones I like the most are the one’s that have the really great stories attached to them. And that’s been to me the great treat out of this project is that it’s given me the chance to sit down with Ursula at her house and just listen to stories.

And so the one that I think of is the riding hat up there, because when she showed me that hat she told me stories of her childhood and how riding was a big part of her childhood. Her father was a Colonel in the Canadian Hussar unit, so he rode horses and she told stories of riding. He had all these horses and she and her twin brother would ride horses up and down the mountain in Montreal with the old Generals and her father’s old friends. So it really brought alive another time period and another place for me, hearing those stories.

TM: What do you hope someone comes away from this show feeling or thinking?

AC: Well, I guess we have two different audiences that I think will be interested in this. One is the visitors from far away that come through Saranac Lake. We have a lot of tourists that come to town. And for them, you know, they don’t know Ursula. They haven’t seen her hats. So I think they’ll be interested. A lot of woman who like hats and fashion will be interested to see it. And people who are just interested in old things or museums will be interested in that sort of way.

The other audience is the local people who are from Saranac Lake and have a real connection to the town. We had a preview of the show during the art walk on Thursday and a lot of the people that came through were local people and they immediately said, ‘oh, I know that hat!’, because they remember these hats from seeing Ursula around town. So that’s what I think will be fun. People really feel connected to Ursula and to her hats because they see her all the time. They don’t necessarily know her well, but she’s kind of symbolic of a lot of parts about who we are as a community. It will be fun to see them connecting with the hats and talking when they’ve seen them and why they like them.

Talking with Ursula Trudeau

Amy Catania tells us that Ursula Trudeau holds a special place in the Saranac Lake community as a highly accomplished artist and a strong supporter of many local institutions. And she is well known for her lovely hats. So Todd sat down to talk with her about headwear.

TM: So tell me about your hats. Tell me about your love of hats.

Ursula Trudeau: I don’t think I always loved the hats, but I started liking hats because my mother was an equestrian. She took the sun very readily, but she realized that her twins had white skin and sun was not a good thing. So she covered us up and went off and did her training. We were left off with these awful looking hats. And the winter was the same thing. We wore these little toques and blanket coats. We grew up in Montreal so that was for warmth. We didn’t get any opinions in this…It was just decided for you.

TM: But you’ve got quite a selection of hats here.

UT: Well I find hats when I’m traveling or I pick something up and sometimes throw it away, give it away or return it. I get carried away. The fringy one on the top there is a Moroccan water seller and they were an outfit much that color, sort of a reddish-orange. And they have a water pouch that they carry and they sell you the water. So in order to take his picture I thought well I’ll get a picture of the hat, but I’ll get the hat, so I got the hat. I don’t know why he was persuaded to part with the hat, but I found a way. And ditto with a Chinese field worker. I don’t know what happened to that poor field worker, but that was a Chinese hat in southern China.

TM: There’s a Russian sailor’s hat there too, is there a story there?

UT: You know, I’ve made several trips to Russia and loved them all, but mostly art trips. And I think I got that in St. Petersburg and I don’t know how I got it. And I wish I knew more about it, but I loved it and said ‘it’s mine. I’m taking it home.’ And what I paid for it… who knows? It’s interesting that there’s still a coterie of people that like hats. But mainly, you don’t have to fuss with yourself you know? You can just stuff your hair up. It could be a mess or you could have long hair, no hair, whatever… put it on. In fact it looks better when you don’t have a lot of hair. It’s simple; it just shows off the hat.

TM: Some of us should have to wear a hat.

UT: Which one would you prefer?

TM: They’re all great! I get my pick?

UT: You get your pick. Go try one on we want to see what you look like.

You’re invited to an opening reception of “A Life in Hats” tonight from 5-7pm in the John Black room of the Saranac Laboratory on Church Street in Saranac Lake. It is a free reception and everyone is invited. Stop by and check out Ursula Trudeau’s many hats and the stories behind them.

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