Telling ‘tales’ from the days of many barbershops
By Lowell McGill
Back in the early and mid 1950s when I was attending college I worked part time for Martin Ritchie who owned The Atmore Advance and for Tom and Ernestine Miniard who owned WATM. My work was usually confined to summer months and weekends. Now, Richie, as he was called by everyone, was a truly knowledgeable newspaper man. He knew more about the newspaper business than some college professors. His ability to sustain the operation of a profitable small town weekly newspaper was surpassed by no one.
Richie wrote a “homespun” column each week. He would sit at the linotype and set that column in hot lead. Back then a computer was an unknown item. This was even before the days of the “justawriter,” a news setting machine, as we called it.
But it was Ritchie’s wit that made him the successful writer that he was. I learned much about “style writing” from Ritchie. He told me one day “I want you to go to every barbershop in town and gather every piece of gossip you can.” He wanted to use these tidbits in his column.
This was back in the 1950s when Atmore had more barbershops than you could shake a stick at. I can’t remember the names of all the shops in those days but I do remember the names of most of the barbers, particularly, their last names.
Let’s see now if I can remember some of those barbers. Most are now deceased with the exception of Jack Wright, Jack Beck and Otis Thames. There was Claude Peacock, A.R. Gunn, “Preacher” White, “Preacher” Taylor, Mr. Beck, Mr. Bell, Ralph Odom, Mr. Hall and Herman Lewis. (I hope I have not omitted anyone).
From many of these shops you could gather the weekly gossip, news of interest and some of the most memorable tales from customers who were in the shops getting their haircuts. Many came for shaves. Some came once a week and that shave would last a whole week. Each barber could just about tell you which day of the week when some of his regular customers would come in. As Mr. Beck would often say, “here it is Saturday and it’s about time for so-in-so to come in for his weekly shave.” Many of these barbers could get a spec out of your eye. Or, they could message your shoulders or arms to help relieve pain. I still have an electric massager given to me by A.R. Gunn. I use it today for stiffness in one on my shoulders.
Some of these barbers were part time preachers, ministering to smaller area churches on the weekend. Preacher Taylor once served as interim pastor at Perdido Baptist Church. My mother and sisters were members of that church, but my dad and I attended the “little Methodist church at the top of the hill.” In any event, Preacher Taylor would sometimes come to our home for Sunday dinner. His wife and children would accompany him. It was always a pleasure to have them for lunch.
Mr. Lewis would often serve as our Methodist lay minister at our small church as we did not have a full time minister. We were in a “charge” with Lottie, Canoe and Rabun.
I’m not sure where Preacher White served. I believe he filled interim positions at area Baptist churches.
I had to make my barber shop rounds once a week and get a haircut. One day Mr. Beck told me “boy you don’t look like you need a haircut, your hair looks like it was cut yesterday.” Well, I never told the barbers I came to get humorous news. And, you know, I can remember some “tall tales” coming from customers sitting in the shops waiting to get their haircuts.
One day, Claude Peacock said to his waiting customers “see this man coming in, he is going to tell you about all the fish he caught.” I don’t remember who the man was, but sure enough as soon as he came in he began talking about all those fish he caught. A.R. Gunn told him right after he came into the shop “my last customer told me he caught some catfish down on Orange Beach.” Not to be outdone this old man fired back “I know exactly the spot those fish were located. He said I have caught hundreds of catfish at that same location.” Well, little did he know that A.R. was leading him on. Catfish were not known to thrive in salty water. A.R. just made up that story because he new the old man simply would not be outdone when he was told that others had caught many more fish than him. All during this conversation Claude would be “winking” at the customers sitting there. Ritchie, by the way, wrote a column following that about catfish found in salt water.
In Ralph Odom’s shop one day a man came in and told all of us about the size of a watermelon he had grown. He said the melon was one of the biggest melons ever grown in this area. He said my melon patch is located in “the edge of Florida” and I always grow the biggest melons. About that time a Florida customer who was getting a shave and his face was covered with a towel. When the man getting the shave heard all this bragging he pulled down that towel and looked around at everyone in the shop and said “that man just told you a lie.” He said that man has never grown a watermelon in his life. He said “I sold him that melon and several more for him to resell at his fruit stand. The man was so embarrassed he said “I think I’ll just crawl in the keyhole.”
Jack Wright always had a good business, he was always friendly and he enjoyed listening to his customers spin yarns. There was one man who always said after his haircut, “Jack, that’s the best haircut I got today.” Jack’s shop was also famous, as well as the other shops, for using good shoe shine boys.
If my memory serves me correctly, I think Jack Beck and Otis Thames began their barbering careers as shoe shine boys. I know they turned out to be good barbers.
I forgot which shop I was in, but one day a woman came in and told all the customers a train had jumped the track. We all went outside and found that one wheel slipped off the rail down near the old ice house. It was nothing serious, but the way she told it you thought a disaster had happened.
In Mr. Lewis’s shop, one day, a man came in and was very excited about a deer he had hit on the road. He wanted everyone to see the dead deer and we all went out to see it, but found that it had vanished from the floor of his pick-up truck. The man was really upset when he found that his deer was gone. Turned out, a friend of his had taken it and hidden it. He was afraid a game warden would see it in his pick up, thinking it was killed out of season. That man said no more about the deer when he realized “after all it was not deer season.”
A woman was in one of the shops with her two small boys one day. The boys had to sit on a board for the barber to properly cut their hair. Just before the woman came in one of the barbers said “here comes Mrs. so-in-so. Let’s flip a coin to see who cuts her son’s hair.” It was apparent to all those barbers that she was very particular. In fact, she was known to stand right beside the barbers and would say “a little more off here and a little less here,” etc. She wanted those haircuts to be just right. After she left the shop a customer came in and was told about the woman. He said “I’ve known her all my life and she is never satisfied.” It turned out the man who said that was her own brother.
Yes there were many tales told in those barber shops back in those days It would take an entire book to elaborate on all those old barbershop conversations.
I always remember Preacher White telling me each time .I left the shop. “Keep playing that Jimmy Davis theme song all the way through to the end.” He was referring to “Suppertime Gospel,” a popular one-hour Gospel program that I, Jimmy Cruise and all the other announcers played at the close of each broadcasting day.
I am sure some of the young barbers who are working today learned their skill from some of these barbers, now long gone.
Just a personal note, I talked with Ernestine Miniard a few days ago and she wants everyone to know how much she appreciates all that was done for her by so many of her friends here following the loss of Tom. She says she misses being away from Atmore and she misses her friends here. She would like to hear from all her friends. In fact she invites them to come and visit and eat lunch together. As you know she is now living at Westminster Village in Spanish Fort. Her son, Larry, lives close by and looks in on her regularly. I am, at her request, trying to round up all the names and locations of the many announcers and other employees who worked for Tom and her over those 30 or so years they owned and operated WATM.
Lowell McGill is a historical columnist for The Atmore Advance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org