My Barber in Birch Tree, Missouri

What’s it like to live in frozen mud with only irregular access to food or warmth? Bill Reed remembers. You do not forget things like that. Times are a lot easier now. He can relax and enjoy his memories. He has finally, definitely retired.

It has been a long career with some tough battles on the way. Mainly Bill has been the barber for Birch Tree and hills and hollers round about for 62 years. At 87 he has finally decided to hang up his clippers. He celebrates his 88th birthday on Jan. 26.

“My knees just aren’t cooperating any more,” Bill explained when tracked down on a snowy December day to his wife’s shoe store, also in downtown Birch Tree. Bill had a sturdy metal walker parked nearby an armchair where he enjoyed taking it easy while Trudy got ready for holiday business.

“I cut my last head of hair in November. People still ask me if I can do one more for them, but I just can’t,” he said. “I still remember cutting 60 heads on a good day. My biggest was 65 guys. I was the best flat-top cutter in the area back then.”

Some folks may have mixed feelings about going to a barber. Maybe they see it as an expensive waste of time or somehow unhealthy.

A visit to Bill’s barbershop offered most of his visitors a chance to relax. Bill has not been the kind to talk your ears off. Or cut them off either. His knees may have become a little wobbly but his hands have been steady and his mind sharp. He was a pro who could be as fast or as slow and smooth as you needed.

Mr. Reed also has more tales than a highway has armadillos. He has opinions too. Keeps most to himself. His memories of growing up near the Irish Wilderness south of town echo some amazing stories about his World War Two service during the Battle of the Bulge in Germany.

His barbershop at the west end of the town park offered the perfect setting for his buddies to share a tale or two. One big old barber chair, two long wooden benches on either side of the 25-by-25 or so room with a window looking out on the park and a generous mirror on the back wall, it felt like a tavern, coffee shop and a history museum rolled into one. His customers made up the kind of crowd you’d expect in a town which prides itself in a long heritage of timberwork in nearby oak and pine forests.

When I first started going there during the 1990s, Bill kept a guitar in the corner by a coat rack, but during recent years it’s been in a case. He’s given up playing though still goes to music parties. Even though Bill slowed to working six mornings a week for the last few years, the shop seemed busy enough. He enjoys telling about working in the timber as a kid.

“I started hacking ties full-time about when I turned 16 years of age,” Bill begins one story. ‘Hacking ties’ means using a crosscut saw and axes to turn hardwood tress into railroad ties, a big industry in the Ozarks for more than a century.

“My dad hurt his back one day when I was a teenager. I had to go to work doing whatever I could.”

“How did he hurt himself?”

“George Walter Reed, that’s my dad, was not a tall man. He was born in 1892, never weighed more than 168 pounds, but he feared no kind of work.

“One day he was helping on a threshing crew for a neighbor harvesting his wheat. He got betting his friends he could lift the rear end of a fully loaded grain wagon plumb off the ground. No one else could do it. But he did. Some of those guys must have had trouble believing he really did it. So he tried it again.

“Well, he tore up all the muscles in his back. Dad could never do a day of hard work after that. That’s why I had to go to work.”

Hacking 10 to 15 railroad ties in a day in the early 1940s could make Bill up to a dollar apiece. Good wages for a kid born in 1926, but then he was drafted in 1944.

All his five brothers would also serve in the military. Bill may not have been too unhappy to leave the farm. Growing up, the boys each shared one of three single beds in the kids’ bedroom; his three sisters shared one single bed. The parents had the other bedroom in the house.

“That’s how most people lived back then, close together. We didn’t have electricity, that didn’t come until the early ‘50s. We all helped on the farm. We all played music. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t easy.

“Mom had two big vegetable gardens. We helped her, and we had livestock and chickens. That was our food. We didn’t buy much but coffee. We were all born at home, and my mother also worked as a midwife. Ora Brawley Reed was a very intelligent woman who went through the 10th grade at Winona. I was lucky to get through 8th grade.”

One major illness Bill remembers from his boyhood was typhoid fever. “I was in bed a long time for that. Several in our neighborhood had it too. It gave me a heart murmur. Because of that, doctors tell me they can’t operate on my knees.”

This story goes on much longer, drop me a note if you want to hear the rest

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