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The Surprising Bay Area Stories Behind Those Small-Town Hats Everyone is Wearing

Written by Julie ZigorisPublished Dec. 25, 2022 • 9:00am
The Bart Bridge patch for Fremont features an embroidered patch depicting the "Mission Peeker," a post with spy holes that helps hikers who reach the top of Mission Peak identify landmarks around the Bay Area. | Nick Veronin/The Standard

English

Do you feel like you’ve been seeing black trucker hats emblazoned with patches that name-check small-town California everywhere you look? Well, it’s because you have.

Luke Fraser, the founder of Bart Bridge and the man responsible for the ubiquitous embroidered patch caps, says people are always telling him they see his hats all over the place. “It’s one of those things I keep hearing,” Fraser said. “And I don’t know what to make of it.”

Part of the hats’ charm is that they give people a way to show allegiance to smaller towns and the local lore they grew up with—it’s far more specific than wearing a Dodgers or Giants cap, according to Fraser.

“It’s so limiting when you think the only way to show affiliation to your hometown is some generic corporate hat of this huge swath of land,” Fraser said. “Most people aren’t from LA or San Francisco.” 

And while some of the images on the custom embroidered hats might seem obvious—a computer for Menlo Park or grapes for Healdsburg—others are a lot more cryptic. That’s what makes the hats so appealing; you have to be from the town to get what it’s about. 

For example, the patch for the East Bay suburb of Fremont (pictured above) features an embroidered depiction of the “Mission Peeker,” which helps hikers who reach the top of Mission Peak identify landmarks around the Bay Area.

The Bart Bridge team | Courtesy photo

“We try to capture the feeling of the towns, and we try not to take it too seriously—we try to have fun,” Fraser said. 

Sometimes, the process can be complicated. Fraser and his indispensable team, composed of General Manager Ashley Muller and Illustrator Mike Hampton, might research a town’s history, check out the school’s mascot and drive to the place in person to get a sense of the locale’s vibe and storefronts. 

It’s not always easy. “I’m from Berkeley, and I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten that one right,” Fraser said. “We’ve done four different iterations by now.”

“Sometimes it’s totally subjective how one image can distill the feeling of an entire town,” Fraser said. “I’ll have two people, one of whom might say you’re way off, and the next person says you nailed it. It’s not like there’s a right answer.”

While Fraser said it was never his intention to become a historian or boost civic pride, he said he’s had a lot of fun doing so. His goal is to give every town integrity and something to feel good about. 

Below, we explain seven of the more esoteric images in the Bart Bridge collection. Keep reading, and you just might learn something new.

Albany

The Bart Bridge patch for Albany is an inside joke about a turkey-feeding gas station owner. | Courtesy Photo

You might wonder why the Bart Bridge hat for Albany includes a turkey and a gas pump—we did, too. Turns out, this is the kind of inside joke only a local would get. There are two gas stations across the street from each other on San Pablo Avenue, and one has gas that’s 50 cents cheaper than the other. According to Fraser, the woman who works at the more expensive station feeds the wild turkeys out of boredom. “All these turkeys there cut across the street, causing these big traffic jams,” Fraser said. “Anyone who lives there knows that particular intersection.”

Graton

The Bart Bridge patch for Graton depicts the Pitkin Marsh lily. | Courtesy Photo

I’ve driven through the tiny hamlet of Graton, which borders Occidental, more times than I can count, but I never knew about its most famous organic resident: the Pitkin Marsh lily, which is featured on the Bart Bridge patch for the town. The reddish flowering herb was thought to be extinct until it was discovered in West Sonoma county in 1983. The Pitkin Marsh has since been identified as one of the most important locations for rare plant preservation

Martinez 

Some of the towns in the Bart Bridge catalog have more than one patch. Martinez is one such city. | Courtesy Photo

Lots of Bart Bridge hats have multiple versions—sometimes one image doesn’t summarize everything about the town, or Fraser receives feedback that a patch isn’t quite right, and he and his team will come up with an additional design. Martinez is one such town. The East Bay city is the (supposed) birthplace of the Martinez, the forerunner of the Martini. That’s why you’ll see cocktail glasses on one hat—as well as a different version that includes an image of the John Muir house. And according to Fraser, there’s a third design requested by locals—the local beavers that inhabit Alhambra Creek and spurred a heartfelt conservation effort. 

Novato

The 1992 film “Radio Flyer” was filmed in Novato. | Courtesy Photo

The Bart Bridge hat for Novato depicts a little red wagon, and that’s because the 1992 film Radio Flyer, narrated by Tom Hanks, was filmed there. The coming-of-age fantasy-drama film takes place in locations across the Marin County city as well as in Ignacio and Columbia. 

Susanville 

The Lassen County town of Susanville is so deeply associated with incarceration—nearly half the adult population of the town works at one of three local prisons—that there was a 2007 documentary titled Prison Town made about it. “It’s probably one of the ones that falls into the more sad category,” Fraser said. “But that’s their truth and their reality; it’s their economy,” and thus the lock and key featured on the patch hat for Susanville

Hercules 

Some Bart Bridge hats represent a history that’s not there anymore, like the now-defunct Pez museum in Burlingame. The East Bay town of Hercules began as a dynamite factory, and during World War I, the plant became the largest producer of TNT, a fact its respective patch commemorates with its own bundle of dynamite

Tomales

Fraser sometimes comes up with patch images according to his own personal associations with a place, and such is the case with Tomales. The Bart Bridge hat for this coastal enclave depicts an egg, a bowl and a whisk. “It’s this tiny little town you could drive right through, but it has this incredible bakery,” Fraser said. “The woman wakes up at 3:30 every day and makes these incredible baked goods in the middle of nowhere.” 

An assortment of Bart Bridge patches represent towns and destinations in the Bay Area and beyond. | Courtesy photo

Fraser’s love of small towns and their identities springs from his love of day trips in West Marin County and West Sonoma County. 

“It helps if there’s these tiny destinations along the way, like oh, you got to stop here to get the best smoothie, or you gotta go there to get these really good baked goods. As a kid, when I first got my license and wanted to disappear, that’s where I would go. Those back roads to me are so vibey.”

You can explore the Bart Bridge catalog at bartbridge.com.

English

Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]


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