The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Daddy's Barbershop

By Mary A. Summerline © 1991

Issue: March, 1991

My father, Jesse Lawrence McCoy, was a barber all of the years I knew him. The first time I remember visiting his shop in Lewisburg, West Virginia, was when I was about six years of age.

The barbershop was located on US 60, now Washington Street, a short distance from its intersection with US 219, now Jefferson Street.

As a child I was unaware of its historical significance. I enjoyed going there because it was Daddy's workplace. I could watch him cut the customers' hair or give them shaves or facials. There were two barber chairs, and sometimes I would sit in the extra one if Daddy's assistant was not on duty. Occasionally Daddy would cut my hair, until I got old enough to go to the beauty parlor for a hair styling or permanent.

There was a shoeshine stand near the front of the shop, run by a black man nicknamed "Crip." The stand was run by him independently, and he cleaned the shop for Daddy instead of paying him rent. Sometimes he would shine my shoes, and Daddy would pay him just as his other customers would do.

Directly above the shoeshine stand there usually hung large wall calendars with hunting or fishing scenes, advertising the Greenbrier Valley Bank or some other local business. I often wished that I could paint pictures like those. It would be more than forty years before I would be able to paint anything that resembled them.

Between the shoeshine stand and the large window at the front there was space for one chair. I often sat there and watched the traffic, which was rather heavy at times. The big tractor-trailer rigs often looked as though they were taking up the whole street, especially if they turned the corner, and everyone in the shop would watch to see if they made it successfully.

We didn't have electricity in our home until I was about thirteen years of age, so I was often fascinated by the electric clippers Daddy used, or the oscillating fan that sat on the shelf. Even more interesting to me was the neon sign at the ice cream parlor on the street corner with its cow's head turning left and right, and the traffic light that changed from green to red. I often wondered if there was a person turning a switch each time it changed.

A few times when "Crip" was not available my brother, Johnny, and I cleaned the shop. We had to wash the sink and mirrors, dust the furniture, and sweep and mop the floor. It took a little while to tidy up the ornamental back bar with its supplies of Lucky Tiger, Wild Root, and Witch Hazel products. Daddy told us to leave the sterilizer with its combs, razors and shears for him to handle, as well as the razor strop and shaving mugs.

The barbershop was a favorite hangout for many of Daddy's customers and friends, and I suspect that many jokes and stories originated there. Daddy had a knack for storytelling, and usually had something interesting to tell us when he came home at night. Sometimes he would invite friends to our house for supper and an evening of card-playing and more storytelling.

Daddy had not always worked as a barber. He had previously worked at Cass, West Virginia - I think with a logging company - and at a paper mill in Covington, Virginia. He had also been employed at several locations in white Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, driving a limousine for the Greenbrier Hotel, working in a garage, and playing the fiddle at the Kate's Mountain Gun Club.

He started cutting hair while he worked at the pump station at Alvon, West Virginia, as a night watchman. It was his job to make sure the pumping equipment that furnished water to White Sulphur Springs was secure and working properly. Word got around that he was cutting hair and playing music in his idle time, and he gradually gained customers. He and my mother, Maude Spinks McCoy, rented a house near the pump station, and it was there that my two sisters and two of my four brothers were born.

Daddy never attended barber school. It was not required in those days. He started barbering professionally in Rainelle, West Virginia, in 1928, and worked subsequently in Caldwell and Lewisburg. When a law was passed in 1934 requiring a license, Daddy used a so-called "grandfather clause" to obtain his license, meaning that he must have worked one year, and produce affidavits from three customers that he could barber.

I often wish that Daddy had kept a record of the people who visited his shop. He told us one day that he had worked on Smiley Burnette, the man who played "Frog Milhouse" in the Gene Autry movies. Another time he was shaving John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, when I walked in, and he introduced us.

Historically the building goes back to 1834, when it was constructed by slave labor, and it served as post office until 1891, when it became a barbershop. The original owner, Frank Perkins, a black man, sold the shop to Ed Carter, another black man, in 1897. Their customers were white.

Mr. Carter operated the shop until 1934. Then it was leased to my father, and managed by Carter's daughter, Mildred Carter Bess.

Mrs. Bess had living quarters above and behind the barbershop. In 1934 she had a private entrance and hallway installed, reducing the width of the shop by 30 inches from its original 15 by 28 feet dimensions. Prior to that it was necessary for her to enter by going through the shop.

Mrs. Bess and I were friends for many years, and I often visited her alone, or with my mother or sister. She had a beautiful piano, made by Meister Piano Company prior to 1900, upon which her mother had taught piano lessons. Mildred and I often entertained each other on the piano, and she sometimes served juice and cookies.

Mildred was somewhat superstitious, and considered it good luck if her first visitor in the New Year was a man, so Daddy would often stop by for a brief visit early in the morning on New Year's Day.

She also claimed to be clairvoyant, and was known to local college girls as Madam Bess. She usually kept her crystal ball covered when I visited her. We remained friends even after I went to Washington, D.C., to work for the FBI, and corresponded until shortly before her death in 1985.

Daddy leased the shop from 1934 until 1969, and worked there until shortly before he died in November, 1970. It was called the Art Barbershop after Halloween pranksters insisted on adding an "F" every year.

There were numerous barbers who worked with Daddy through the years. The last one was Gene Flannagan, who began working there in 1962, and is the current owner. Mr. Flanagan was kind enough to furnish me with much of the historical information used in this article.

According to Mr. Flanagan, the shop is the oldest continuous business in the town of Lewisburg, and he believes the shop to be the oldest continuous barbershop in the state.

He is only the third owner, having purchased it in 1982 from the Carter estate, and it is currently known as Flanagan's Barbershop.

He and his wife, Delores, recently renovated the shop, making extensive repairs and restoring it to its original 15 by 28 feet size. The walls are now decorated with old movie posters found between the walls during renovation. They are framed and used as wall hangings.

A recent visit to the shop and talking with Mr. Flanagan brought back many fond memories of Daddy's Barbershop.