Ask Me: Hats off to longtime Fresno volunteer, fashion plate

The Fresno BeeMarch 23, 2013 

Question: Many years ago I heard a speaker named Cappie Barrett. Can you tell me more about her?

-- Patteanne Frank, Fresno

Answer: For more than 40 years, Frances Capitola "Cappie" Barrett was a volunteer and community activist in Fresno who also was well-known for her large collection of fancy hats.

Cappie Barrett was born on a ranch near the small town of Christine, Texas, about 50 miles south of San Antonio.

Her son, Chuck Barrett of Fresno, says her fascination with hats was compulsive and may have begun as a child. "She loved hats and nobody knows where that started," he said. But everyone on the ranch wore cowboy hats, and "as a girl in Texas she made it her job to keep all the hats cleaned and brushed."

Her other son, William Barrett of Fresno, recalls that his mother's love of hats really took off when she was working at Rodder's department store in downtown Fresno. "She fell in love with hats there. She'd see one and buy two," he said.

In 1989, Cappie Barrett estimated she owned 300 to 400 hats. She said they were her most prized possessions, but added, "they're not worth much to anyone else."

In a 1969 Fresno Bee story, Barrett talked about her hats, many made with lace, chiffon, feathers and silk: "I have always loved hats -- the more dramatic the better. There is never a day I don't wear one," she said. "To this day, I can't resist petting hats or straightening them in the shops. I can't stand to see a hat mistreated."

She also was passionate about horses, and owned a Tennessee Walker that she enjoyed riding on the Barretts' ranch near Piedra in the foothills near Fresno.

Barrett described herself as a shy but steadfast person. "When I take on something, I don't let loose," she said in a 1989 Fresno Bee interview.

Charles Ray Barrett was in the Army when the couple married in Texas in late November 1941, just days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii launched America into World War II.

Their marriage certificate was signed by John Connally, William Barrett said. More than two decades later, Connally -- then the governor of Texas -- was injured while riding in the presidential limousine when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

After World War II, Charles Barrett became an attorney and the couple moved to California, living on the Central Coast before settling in Fresno in 1954. In addition to their sons, they had two daughters, Frances McLain of Rancho Murrieta and Joy Sabol of Orlando.

William Barrett said his father liked the San Joaquin Valley because it reminded him of the Wyoming farm where he grew up. He recalls his mother's optimism: "She had the spirit of looking for the bright side of things."

Chuck Barrett said his mother "made a deliberate decision to lead a gracious life because of the hardscrabble life she lived on a Texas farm."

Described in the 1969 Bee story as "a willowy brunette" and "lovely grandmother who still wears a size 10 dress," Cappie Barrett had worked as a professional model, coached Miss California contestants and ran a "charm school" at their home, Chuck Barrett said. "I'd come home from school and frequently find some young woman in the living room learning how to walk or sit down properly."

She also taught self-improvement classes for women and was a frequent speaker at local organizations.

William Barrett said his mother "had a real skill for working with people in various walks of life," a skill she used to organize fundraising events for local causes.

Cappie Barrett was involved in several civic and political organizations in Fresno. She helped start the Fresno County Cancer League and served as both board member and president of the local branch of the American Cancer Society. In 1983, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors declared a "Cappie Barrett Day" when she stepped down after 20 years with the Cancer Society.

She was involved with the Fresno County Democratic Women's Club, the Fig Garden Woman's Club and the YWCA, and volunteered for many other community groups.

She was named Fresno's Mother of the Year in 1989.

After her husband died in 1991 at age 71, Barrett married Jack Huneke in 1994. She died in 1997 at age 82.

After her death, Barrett's family allowed her glamorous clothing -- the designers included Mr. Blackwell and Halston -- and stunning hats to be used for fundraising fashion shows. Family members have kept some of her "lesser hats," said daughter-in-law Midge Barrett, but most of the collection is held by the Fresno Historical Society.

Question: When I update my Facebook status from my phone, it says that I'm in Muscatel, Calif. Where and what is that?

-- Alma McKenry, Fresno

Answer: Muscatel was a station stop along the Southern Pacific Railroad line about 4.5 miles north-northwest of downtown Fresno.

The stop likely took its name from Muscatel Estates, which is recorded in the official atlas of Fresno County in 1891 and in 1907. Maps in the atlas show the estate was bounded by Shields, Chateau Fresno and Grant (now Grantland) avenues and the alignment for Bullard Avenue.

According to "Decisions, Vol. 6" published by the California Public Utilities Commission, on Feb. 23, 1915, the state's Railroad Commission approved a lease agreement between Southern Pacific Railroad and the Fresno Traction Co. for use of an 8-mile section of track at Muscatel Station.

Today, Internet maps locate Muscatel on Marty Avenue south of Ashlan Avenue, in an industrial area near the rail lines. By the way, muscatel is a rich sweet wine made from muscat grapes.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee N

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