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A brief history of barbers in Wadena

Barbering in Wadena has evolved over the years from the three Ostrander brothers, John, Royal and James, setting up shop in Wadena in 1879 around the location of present day Hollywood Video to Rick's Barber Shop (Rick Johnson) at 324 Jefferson Street South in 2010.

In between the above there were approximately 100 barbers, some lasting for years and some almost just passing through. The main ones being George Wheeler and Carl Blessing at 202 ½ South Jefferson under Brink's Jewelry, Elmer Clarno and the Prettyman brothers, Clarence, Irvin and Roy, later in the real estate and loan business, at 110 South Jefferson now a part of the Emporium and Reese McClelland, Evan Johnson and Rudy Jetenberg at 117 South Jefferson, now a part of Ben Franklin Crafts.

In the early 1900s, Saturday night at the barber shop was a big deal. Bearing in mind that in those times haircuts were not a regular occurrence, especially for those men coming out of the woods in the spring. Shaves for townsmen were a regular affair, with men having their regular barbers and their own personalized shaving mugs with their names on them on display at their favorite shop. This seemed to be an indication of affluence and a mark of distinction.

The other big feature of the barber shop in those days was that the better shops offered a bath tub, which, for 25 cents, you could use with a towel to cleanse yourself, followed by a shave, 15 cents, and a haircut, 25 cents. I understand the only draw back was that when following a particularly dirty individual one had to remove the black ring around the tub before proceeding. Of course, after the above and some hair tonic and lotion, one was a changed person ready to face the world. I understand that the next stop was to go next door to Johnny Mason's Club Saloon and purchase a schooner of beer for a nickel and enjoy a variety of meats and bread, a free lunch.

However our story is directed at Helmer Wallevand and his side kick Chauncey Fox. Helmer grew up near Vining, and being of small stature decided at an early age that farming was not for him and went to Deer Creek to learn the barbering trade.

In 1920, he came to Wadena and went to work for Reese McClelland in his shop at 117 South Jefferson. He told me that he remembers clearly going for lunch that first day at the Colonial Café at 124 South Jefferson. He was with Reese until 1926 when he entered into a partnership with Carl Blessing, purchasing the shop of Roy Prettyman at 110 South Jefferson. This partnership lasted only a year when he bought out Carl and set up shop for himself. In 1927 he entered into business with Chauncey Fox, a Hewitt boy, an arrangement that lasted forty two years. They made a wonderful team, Chauncey Fox being one of the best and most agreeable persons that I ever knew.

Helmer's Barber Shop at 110 South Jefferson was truly a work of art. There were three chairs. Helmer in Chair 1, Fox in chair 2 and numerous barbers in chair 3. The north wall contained large mirrors the length of the shop. The south wall was a series of small mirrors at the base of each being an advertisement for the wares of a local merchant.

In the front, the entry door was on the south corner and in the north corner inside was the shoe shine stand. I don't know when it started. In later years, Roy (Bum) Ireland was the shine boy. I even substituted for him a time or two.

In spring 1950, a disaster struck when the building burned destroying Gordon's Eat Shop, Helmer's Barber Shop, Murray Land Office, Prevost's Grocery and Engh's Bakery.

Helmer, with Fox in tow, moved to Helmer's front porch for the summer and that fall moved his shop to 14 Colfax Avenue SW where he again had a three-chair shop. Again Helmer in chair 1, Fox in chair 2 and most of the time Ted Tonsager, an old-time fiddle player and barber in chair 3.

In 1966, Rick Johnson, a Menahga boy, who had been to barber school in Minneapolis graduating in 1959 came to work in chair #3. Rick worked for Helmer until 1970 when he bought the shop from Helmer and after that Helmer and Chauncey were his employees.

In 1975, the building was sold and Rick moved to 324 South Jefferson where he had two chairs, with Helmer and Chauncey each working three days per week.

In 1976, Chauncey contracted pneumonia while deer hunting and quit working and died in 1977.

Helmer continued working until 1982 when he was struck by a car while crossing the street in front of the barber shop ending his barbering career.

Since then Rick has operated a one man shop and in recent years has gone to an appointment arrangement.

As I said earlier there were many other barbers, most recently a series of barbers at 9 Bryant Avenue SE with the main ones being Bob's Barber Shop, Bob Horn from 1968 to 1980; and Lee's Barber Shop, Leo Hoffman from 1989 to 2003. That spot is now the home of Lorna's Beauty Shop.

In visiting with Rick, he told me of a pictorial history of Wadena on the north wall of the Colfax Avenue shop which the new owner of the building painted over in 1975 contributing to Rick's moving.

He said when he started with Helmer, haircuts were $3 and shaves the same. Although shaves were almost non-existent. Today he charges $10, which is cheap by statewide standards.

Bob Horn set up shop in Verndale a number of years ago, but at the present time is recovering from bypass surgery thus making Rick the only male barber working in Wadena County.

Rick listed the following as some of the hair cut styles available during his barbering days. The flat top, crew cut, Mohawk, Ivy league and high and tight.

A listing of all barbers in Wadena since the beginning is on file at the Wadena County Historical Society for anyone wishing to travel further.