ASHLAND – His final haircut was an easy one.
Pat Stewart said goodbye to nearly six decades of barbering with a few flicks of a razor on the mostly bare head of his son, Doug.
“Dad’s last haircut” was the caption on the picture posted on Twitter by his daughter, Leisa Rogers, to mark the occasion.
It was a quiet and rather private end to a man who has provided not only haircuts but also entertainment to his customers over the years.
Stewart opened Pat’s Barber Shop on June 1, 1971 at 103 N. 14th St. in downtown Ashland. He stayed in the same building the entire time, with the same barber’s chair, stainless steel comb sterilizer and antique original marble shoe shine stand wooden back bar as his tools of the trade.
He was only the second barber to cut hair in the building since it was built in 1928. That year, Ed Chrischilles and George Mason moved their shop from a hotel at the other end of the block after it was damaged by fire. The hand-carved work station moved with them, having escaped the fire. Mason died in 1955 and Chrischilles continued on his own for several years.
Stewart had been living in Ashland for about four years, all the while commuting to his shop in Omaha and looking for a place closer to his home. While at a local restaurant to grab a pop, another man introduced Stewart to Chrischilles, who said, “You ought to buy my shop.” Chrischilles’ wife immediately nixed the idea.
A few years later, however, the wife changed her mind after Chrischilles became ill. Stewart accepted the offer and sold his Omaha shop in less than a week.
Stewart had been a barber since 1957. It was not the job he envisioned as he grew up on a farm in Magnolia, Iowa.
“I figured I’d farm or something like that,” he said.
The youngest of eight children, Stewart was named Keith but got the nickname “Pat” from an older brother. He was in third grade before he realized it wasn’t his real name. The teacher in the one-room country school called out “Keith” but Stewart didn’t answer.
“That’s when I found out my name was Keith,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 1950, Stewart worked for a while on the farm, then got a job at a packing house. He was laid off during the Christmas season.
At age 18, he figured he’d be drafted soon for the Korean War, so he enlisted. He served in the Army from 1951 to 1953 and was deployed to Korea.
When he got back, Stewart had a hard time finding land to start his own farm. So he and a cousin bought a fuel truck. He worked 14 to 15 hours a day driving the truck.
His brother-in-law was a barber and suggested Stewart give it a try.
“I said, it’s got to be a better life than this here,” he said.
He sold the trucking business and enrolled in a barber college in Omaha. Classes lasted six months, apprenticeship another 18.
After obtaining his license, he opened a shop in Omaha. That same year he married his wife, Jean.
A few years later Stewart moved his shop to 61st and Ames Avenue in Omaha’s Benson neighborhood.
Stewart’s wife had also grown up in the country. The pair longed to move their four children to the country.
Even while living in the heart of Omaha, they kept a bit of their rural upbringing intact. They had horses that were stabled miles away in Florence. The kids loved riding with their parents.
One day their oldest daughter, Leisa, decided that if the family lived in the country they could ride anytime they wanted.
“That tickled my wife and I to death because neither one of us liked Omaha,” Stewart recalled.
Stewart found five acres outside of Ashland where the family built a house and barn. A few years later they bought five more acres.
For the first four years he lived in Ashland, Stewart would get home from the Omaha shop to find his children had groomed his horse and had it ready to ride.
“All I had to do was change my clothes, put my jeans and boots on and throw the saddle on and we’d go riding,” he said.
The family would go head to Crystal Spring, now the site of Carol Joy Holling Camp. The family also liked to saddle up and help out at a cow/calf operation that was located where Mahoney State Park sits today.
“We got a lot of riding in there,” Stewart said.
Horses have remained a big part of Stewart’s life. He broke the horses he and his children have ridden over the years, and worked with his wife to lead the local horse 4-H group, where she is still a leader. For 25 years he served as the light horse superintendent for the Saunders County fair and he also drove a wagon for Hull and Smith Horse Vans on the weekends.
Along with horses, another constant in Stewart’s life has been playing cards. At his shop in Omaha, he would play five-point pitch with customers.
When he moved his shop to Ashland the card game came with him. It started with one table of six players.
“People would come in to get their hair cut and see that we were having a card game,” he said.
One table grew to two. Then a third was added. At one point there were three tables going at one time.
“Twenty-nine farmers would come in here every afternoon,” Stewart said.
Over the years the number of players dwindled, as did the number of customers that came into the shop.
In the peak years, Stewart would have one customer in the chair and two or three waiting at a time. Groups of new National Guard recruits from nearby Camp Ashland would be brought in by the vanload.
Stewart did not take appointments. Instead, he catered to his customers, the majority of whom were local farmers with schedules that needed to be flexible.
“I was born and raised on a farm so I know how it is,” he said. “If an animal’s out, you’re going to forget that appointment because you’re going to get that animal back in before it gets any more out.”
Farmers typically came in on the weekdays to get their hair cut.
“Everyone says Saturday morning’s busy, but Saturday was my slowest day,” he said. “Tuesday was my busiest day.”
When Stewart first opened the shop in Ashland there were four other barbers. For the past decade or so he’s been the only one.
Stewart’s prices started out at $2.50 per hair cut. He raised it to $5 at one point, then tacked on a few bucks a few years ago.
“It’s been seven dollars for years,” he said.
Over the years, a style that originated decades ago continued to be his most popular.
“I still cut a lot of flat tops,” he said.
One customer has been getting a flat top since he first walked into Stewart’s Omaha shop in 1957. When Stewart moved to Ashland, the customer came with him.
Keith Weston of Ashland is another longtime customer of Stewart’s. The two met as members of the Ashland Saddle Club before Weston came in for his first trim.
“I’d get my hair cut every four or five weeks,” Weston said.
Every hair cut came with a bonus – Stewart’s “story of the day.”
“I’ve always got to tell ‘em a story or two,” Stewart said.
The stories were actually jokes. Some maybe were a bit off color. Some might have been repeated a time or two.
“I get a hair cut and hear a story,” Weston said. “The next hair cut I’d hear the same thing.”
Slowly the opportunity for Stewart to tell a story decreased as older customers died off and young men took their business to salons. Stewart would pass the time between haircuts playing solitaire or relaxing on a recliner in front of the television.
The years have taken their toll on Stewart, who turns 83 on July 7. He has arthritis and a pacemaker.
“There’s a lot of things I can’t do any more that I used to,” he said.
The decision to retire was made with little or no advance warning to his customers.
“They’ll know when the door’s locked,” he said with a trademark smirk.
Some retirees look forward to traveling. However, Stewart and his wife have done plenty of that over the years.
“I’ve been to all 50 states and on seven cruises,” he said.
Stewart’s plans include mowing and looking after the two remaining horses on their acreage.
“I’m not going to do a whole lot, I’ll put it that way,” he said.
When he put down his scissors for the final time on Saturday, Stewart said goodbye to a lifetime of memories. The well-worn leather chair, the yellowed license issued by the Nebraska Board of Barber Examiners in 1971 and the photographs that adorn the wall will find a place in his home as a reminder of the decades he spent cutting hair and telling stories.
And with that, the last barber shop in Ashland closed its doors.