The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 27, 2013

Old Time Barbershops

By Gary Herrity
The Clinton Herald

This is the front room of 92 Main Avenue, which was perhaps the oldest barbershop in Iowa, and owned by Herman Dreesen. In the picture from the left are Charlie Ashton, Herman “Pickles” Dreesen, and Charlie Overkamp, from a picture owned by Jack and Mary Soesbe.


Old time barbershops were for so much more than a haircut! They were social clubs and a time for conviviality among men. In really olden days, two hundred years ago, a red and white swirly barber pole signified surgical or dental services, like blood-letting, common in George Washington’s day. That soon gave way to shops of the 1850 -1950 era, when a trip to the barber shop might entail a “shave and haircut… two bits” (a quarter). It might also include meeting dozens of friends, getting a bath, having a shoeshine, playing cards, and, once shaving became popular, barbers used a razor strop to sharpen a straight-edge and have at your face.


The old tonsorial experts (barbers) first learned their trade by apprenticing; later, they had to go to barber school. “Little Harry” Turner hung around the Montgomery Shop in South Clinton and began honing his skills as a teenager… when he was even smaller.


All the barbers seemed to have nicknames: “Shaky Ed” Montgomery; “Wigs” Clausen, up on North Fourth near Bartels’ Garage, where Don Davis would go through the bar to get “Wigs” to come forward and give a cut. There was, of course, “Ripper” Collins, Johnny “Blue Nose” Hanson, and “Pickles” Dreesen. Ahhh, “Pickles” Dreesen.


Dreesen had, perhaps, the oldest barbershop in Iowa, on Main Ave. by Lyons High School. He was way more than a barber, starting at his location in 1901; later selling it to Charlie Overkamp, who was followed by Jack Soesbe, who ended its reign in 2005. “Pickles” was a terrific businessman… and as tight as they come! He cashed checks for ten cents and his fortune grew, until at one time he owned several Main Avenue buildings plus several farms. His home was the Polly Ball House on North 2nd Street. His given name was Herman, but everyone in town knew him as “Pickles.”


Once, a county cattleman went to Chicago and sold his beef. He returned to Lyons with a sizeable check and asked Pickles to cover it -- which he could, since he always had $20,000 to 40,000 in his safe (Jack recently sold it, and it was still as solid as the night thieves took a sledge hammer to it, in vain). Pickles said that he’d cash the check for $20, but the outraged man left in a snit. Up and down Main Avenue he went, trying to get another to cash it, but no one could. So, back to Pickles he went, crabbing, “I guess I’ll have to deal with you!”


Charlie Overkamp (1885-1971) began with “Pickles” in 1911, after homesteading in Casper, Wyoming. He had picked up his skills while barbering on the side there, just to eat. At one time, that shop had three chairs, three pool tables, a bathtub, a card room, and a tailor shop. Charlie retired in 1968.


In its heyday, there were over forty barbershops in town, but that dwindled to twenty in the 1970’s. Now fewer than a dozen traditional shops exist, with no frills… not even shaves… and outlining is done with an electric trimmer. No backroom, no pool tables. But barbers’ chairs seem to stay full; places men continue to gather and talk, often adjourning to nearby fast food places for more talk. Conversation is still part and parcel of a barbershop experience.


Other old time barbers were Allan Judge, Al Erhart, Floyd Bickford at the Brass Rail, and Frank Conboy around the corner on 4th Ave. with Dick Westbo. Who can ever forget Claude Arney on 2nd Street?! He was seen at a continuing education meeting when he was 80 years old, watching a demonstration by some woman showing how to weave flowers into female hair-do’s, and they asked him, “Claude, are you thinking of using this concept in your business?” He dead-panned back, “Hell no, I’m watching the girls.”


Also on Second Street was Monty Bales. He was there about as long, and at the same time, as “Pickles” was in Lyons. On Camanche Avenue was the multi-talented Rex Quick, who played several musical instruments; and on Fayette Street there was the economically-priced Neighborhood Barber. Jake Timmer was on 6th Avenue So, across the street from the Herald and below the Hoffman Apartments, near the picture shows. It was a long skinny shop with its chairs and a backbar on the left. Old Mr. Lawson’s was another one on 4th Street.


Most boys learned the art of verbally grappling with peers by sitting in barbershops listening to men argue. The famous industrial league catcher, Dick Crider, reflected that … “My Step-Dad was a Barber.  In the late 30's he cut hair at Walt Iversen’s on 2nd Street, across from Machael's.  It was also a pool room.  I was only in third grade, but I remember getting a candy bar for getting my haircut.  His name was Archie "Tommy" Thompson.  He had a brace on his leg and walked with a cane.”


Barbershops were places that “rights of passage” occurred, as men brought in their sons for haircuts. Strict fathers often called the shots on styles, even in absentsia. Bob King remembers being taken to Harry Turner’s on 4th Street, where John R. Sr. had Harry do a short cut, despite long hair’s popularity. Even when Bob went alone, and gave contrary directions, Harry still cut it Dad’s way. Later, Bob would change barbers just to get it his way. Thus, barbering contributed to a boy becoming a man and asserting his own hair style.