By: Dana Smith, MSV intern
This week, Vermilion’s historic downtown neighborhood lost a precious symbol of small town life: the barber’s pole. The red, white and blue stripes have been a part of the sliver of a shop on Liberty where only four barbers have owned and cut hair since 1868. When the pole was spinning, the barber was in; still when he was not.
It was more than a symbol of being open for businesses. It was a landmark and a memory stirrer for hundreds of men and boys who received their tearful first cut in the barber’s chair or hundreds of cuts throughout a lifetime until the hairs didn’t grow as fast – or at all. It was the place where gossip was spread, good news shared, arguments started and settled, elections won or lost, and lifelong friendships made.
This coveted location on Main and Liberty has seen barbers with tenures up to 50 years, each a character in what makes up our community. But for many in Vermilion, no one has been more representative of the small town barber than Paul Hartenstein.
When Paul started working for Pete Derby in 1957, he planned to be in Vermilion for one to two years – but after seven years, he ended up buying “The Captain’s Chair” and became the next chapter of the building’s long history as the town’s barbershop. In that time, Paul became one of the staples of the Vermilion community, easily recognized as being in the shop by his bowties and large smile – and the spinning barber pole. Anyone who has met Paul could probably identify him just based on his wide selection of bowties. Evelyn, Paul’s wife of 56 years, has made most of them, and Paul tied them himself every morning. The one he wears most often is blue and white striped.
Some of Paul’s favorite memories include giving countless children their first haircut. “I bet he’s in a lot of family albums,” Evelyn pointed out. As excited as the parents were, however, the kids were not always as happy about their big moment. “Hardly any of the kids didn’t cry,” notes Paul. “Some of them probably still hate me!” One boy in particular always fell asleep during his haircut, so his father would hold up his head as Paul snipped away. Paul especially enjoyed talking to his patrons about their families and sports, although he jokes about his own lack of sports knowledge. “They were kind of on their own there!” Paul also vividly recalls the 1960s and 70s when men started growing their hair longer. “I’ve been around long enough to see haircuts go in, out, and back in again!” laughs Paul. And through all that time, the barber pole kept spinning.
In 2003, Paul Hartenstein quietly hung up his shears, swept up some stray hairs, shut off the barber pole, and locked up “The Captain’s Chair” for the last time. After almost 46 years and countless haircuts, he decided it was time to retire so he could spend time with Evelyn. Fourteen years later, they both try to get down to Vermilion when they can, but even outside the city they run into old customers all the time. Evelyn mentioned a time when she was at a doctor’s appointment and the son of her doctor recognized Paul and took pictures with him! Paul gets stopped in the street all the time, he says, especially when in Vermilion. “No matter where we go in Vermilion, someone knows Paul!” laughs Evelyn. “What should have been a ten minute trip turns into a few hours.” Paul also mentioned that while he might not remember your name, he’ll always recognize your face – and your hair! “Sometimes we’ll be out and he’ll point to someone and say, ‘I used to cut their hair!’” says Evelyn.
In their retirement, Paul and Evelyn are enjoying their beautiful home in the country. The couple certainly stays active – Paul chops wood, gardens, and keeps up the outside and Evelyn oil paints, sews, and makes cards. “Paul is always the first one to help if anyone asks,” says Evelyn. The couple still lives in the same house they moved into six months after they married, and still hold the same regard for the many years they’ve spent as a part of the Vermilion community. ”Vermilion was good to us,” Evelyn recalls. “The people in Vermilion are great. They made us feel at home – they made a home for us. We miss them and we’re glad they supported us for all the years they did.” The impact Paul has had on the community is clear – he has a book filled with photos of Vermilion as it was when he was cutting hair downtown as well as several letters from appreciative customers.
Both Paul and Evelyn commented on how hard it was to let go of the shop. Paul loved going to work everyday – he enjoyed what he did and was passionate about his customers. “I missed the people a lot [when I left]…I still miss them,” says Paul. “We’re just glad we had an opportunity to share Vermilion with them,” says Evelyn. “Really all you need to put in this is that I think the people in Vermilion are great,” says Paul. “Vermilion is heaven on Earth.”
A little bit of that heaven has certainly left Liberty Avenue with the removal of the barber pole, and while this may be a sign of the ever evolving nature of our downtown streetscape, the barber pole and the history it carries with it will be missed – yet, we’re lucky to have people like Paul, a testament to the impact our downtown merchants have on our community, our lives, and the history each one carries with them.