Story by Roger Moore
What is one business, gathering place, or taken-for-granted downtown establishment that just about every rural community has or once had? Think about a classic scene from Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter or maybe a few Gene Hackman flicks, Hoosiers or Mississippi Burning, in particular. Some of a community’s best-kept secrets can be uncovered there.
The barber shop. It is not hard to imagine small towns along the move west in the late nineteenth century. After days or weeks of hard travel in the dust and wind one of the first things a human might seek is a hot bath, a good shave, maybe throw in a haircut. As communities grew, the barber shop’s role did not necessarily change, but for locals, it became a popular hangout, a place to tell or hear a few yarns.
Few records exist of Stillwater’s old barber shops, but you can bet there were a few on Main Street in the early part of the twentieth century. Within the last three years, Stillwater has lost two of its prized barbers who could certainly keep an audience.
In August of 2016, “Whisperin’” Richard Daniel died at the age of 83. For 57 years, a man of many jokes held court in his shop on Campus Corner. Daniel and his wife Dot – they were married 64 years – moved to Stillwater in 1954 to attend Oklahoma A&M. Throughout the years, along with his jokes and stories, Daniel collected all things Oklahoma State. Walk through the door and take a journey back in time. In 1955, Whisperin’ Richard cut Eddie Sutton’s hair and the two became lifelong friends.
Just a few blocks down University Avenue, a left turn onto Washington Street, and down a block you would have found another local legend who held court for a half-century in Stillwater. In September, Nathan “Bud” Payne passed away; he too was 83. And like Daniel, his shop, Bud’s Barber Shop, opened for business in the 1950s. A combination of museum and antique shop, Payne’s walls were filled with photos. On Saturdays, often our family would head down to visit with Grandad at DuPree’s Sports Equipment. My grandad was soft-spoken, a man of few words; Bud, on the other hand, would talk and talk and talk. His love of horses was obvious and he would not hesitate to give you an opinion about last night’s game, a current issue emanating from City Hall; but mostly it was dirty jokes, something that brought big laughs from the adult males, a scowl from mom, and a young kid asking “what does that mean?”
Yet another longtime storyteller and barber, Ken Murray, graduated from Washington School in 1956. Some basketball and military service preceded a career that started in 1969 in the OSU Student Union basement. Locals might remember a bowling alley and some video games and Murray cutting hair.
The list of places in Stillwater to get a haircut rivals fast-food establishments; at last count there were in excess of twenty. Many of them are anything but a place to hear a good story; it’s quick in, quick out, and on to the next customer. A few, however, are bringing back the old-school traditional haberdashery environment.
Originally a place to get some coffee and men’s apparel, in 2016 J. Bryson Baker expanded EVERYMAN to include traditional, straight-edged shaves and haircuts. The Oklahoma State theater professor wanted to bring back that old downtown feel. A place to go after a hard day’s travel on the wagon trail. A place to relax, to get a good shave, chat a little about the weather, or what’s the latest rumor. This scribe made an appointment, had a shave, and got pampered. It’s therapeutic. At the same time, I was daydreaming about possible harassment of a drifter passing through town or of the sign outside the shop in Hoosiers that read “Friday win, Saturday trim!”
And I thought about sitting in Whisperin’ Richard’s or Bud’s chair on a Saturday morning getting a haircut. The stories told in barbers’ chairs are not unlike a local museum docent guiding you through the community’s history. Those yarns might include local legends like Eddie Sutton, Thurman Thomas, and Garth Brooks. But, not just those legends the general public knows about, we might learn a thing or two about those who perhaps should be more prominent in Stillwater’s history. It can be argued that a community’s most known barbers are part newspaper editor, part poet, part storyteller, a little therapist, stand-up comedian, and gossip columnist with a shave and a haircut mixed in.
Question: What does the McDonald’s arches, Coca-Cola and the Phillips 66 logo have in common with the barber shop pole? They are all very recognizable. Yet, one of them is becoming a lost gem.