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Barbering In Emmitsburg of Old

Michael Hillman

Anyone who knows the history of Kerry Shorb’s family knows that the name of his shop, “My Father’s Footsteps,” is the understatement of the century.  Kerry’s father — Charles (Toss) Shorb, began his barber’s apprenticeship at the ripe young age of 15 with his future wife’s uncles Gay Topper and  Thornton Rodgers in their barbershop on West Main Street in Emmitsburg. Robert Topper, also a barber, worked part-time in the shop, and later through marriage became a step-grandfather to Kerry . . . and so goes the history of barbering in Emmitsburg.

Emmitsburg, like all small towns in rural America in the 1920s and 30s, sported a number of barber shops. Aaron W. Adams opened his barber shop in 1928 in what is now the side room of the Ott House. [This same room also once housed Hoke’s hardware store, and the town’s public library]. Fred Troxell had a shop near the old bowling alley, across from what is now the town’s Laundromat, and, later, in the back of his house on N. Seton Ave. 

Thornton Rodgers and Guy Topper opened their shop in Emmitsburg about 1922 at 26 West Main Street. Thornton had apprenticed and worked in Gettysburg up until that time, and during WWI, he worked at the Sparrows Point Shipyard in Baltimore. He was ineligible for military service due to a game leg caused by polio contracted at the age of two. He married Carrie Gelwicks in 1921 and they lived in the house at 201 N. Seton Ave. the rest of their lives. 

While business was always good, it was standing room only on Saturday nights when farmers and country folks, weary from a hard week of labor, descended upon town. With wives busy buying or selling supplies or just plain shopping, and children viewing the latest cowboy movie, men would eventually migrate to the barber shops for well-deserved shaves and friendly conversation and horseplay.

A stop at Thornton Rodgers’ shop was always a must. Mike, a nick-name Thornton was known by, was always interested in politics and was on the Emmitsburg town council many years in the 1930’s along with fellow councilmen John Elder, Francis Matthews, and Charley Harner and Mayor Mike Thompson. As a councilman, he entertained his customers with the latest on local politics and town plans. On Saturday night, his shop “doubled’’ for the town office, and more than one idea resulted from Saturday evening deliberations. 

When WWII erupted, Thornton again went to the shipyard to work from 1942 to 1945. When he returned to Emmitsburg, he cut hair in the shop with Guy Topper until 1946 when, in partnership with two of his sons, Bill and Bee, he started a furniture repair business. However, some of his old customers just couldn’t find a barber like Mike and came to his house for a haircut. Thornton stayed active in local politics and was mayor of Emmitsburg in 1950 and 1951.

The largest of the old barbershops, Thornton and Guy’s shop contained three barber chairs, two long benches, and several chairs for waiting customers. Above the mirror that dominated the room was a shelf on which sat shaving mugs sporting the name of each customer. When their turn arrived, customers reclined in one of the chairs and a hot towel was wrapped around their face to soften the week-old growth. The barber added hot water to their shaving mugs, and quickly produced a hot thick lather. With skilled hands, a straight razor made quick work of straggly growth.

Each barber had his own unique style of cutting hair, and it was easy to determine who patronized whom. For example, Thornton Rodgers used the natural neckline in shaping a hair cut. Others cut hair to an exact length, leaving those with long skinny necks with wide sidewalls, and those with short necks wondering what hair had been cut.

While the cost of a haircut was only $.35, and a shave two bits, for some even this was too expensive. To save money, most parents used to cut their own kids’ hair — fathers the sons, mothers the daughters. Sons, of course, would submit to this reluctantly, especially when the lass next door suddenly stopped being an object of taunting and became an object of desire. It was easy to tell the kids from small families. The lack of practice was apparent in the uneven length of hair and Band-Aids on the ears. Parents of large families often got so good at hair cutting that it was common for one to set up shop and earn a little extra cash servicing the needs of their neighbors.

To handle the influx of the farmers on their weekend excursions into town, Aaron Adams often called up Charley Sharrer to lend a hand. In 1930, Aaron moved his shop to 106 West Main Street, where it remained until 1985, when Aaron’s son Rodger, who had joined his father in 1947, retired. Thornton Rodgers and Guy Topper retired their scissors in 1946 -1947.

It was at the feet of these great men that “Toss” Shorb, Kerry’s father, got his start. After graduating from barber school in 1937, Toss barbered in Baltimore for several years before returning to Emmitsburg where he fell in love with the woman of his dreams, Kathleen Topper Shorb. Kathleen, born in Emmitsburg in 1918, was from an old established family that traced its roots back to the founding of Emmitsburg. Kathleen attend St. Euphemia’s Grade School [now an apartment building next to St. Joseph’s Church], and later the St. Joseph’s College High School.

In the years following, Toss ran both a barber shop and a beauty shop. A true entrepreneur, Kerry’s father even tried his hand at the restaurant business and for years successfully managed the popular Toss’s Dog House lunch room. In 1953 Toss built the shop which now houses Kerry’s shop. Several years later he retired from barbering and began a second career as the postmaster for the old St. Joseph’s College, eventually retiring in 1977.

Guy (Mac) McLaughlin cut hair for Toss Shorb in his shop under the hotel on the square. After a short time with Toss, Mac and his wife moved to Nebraska. Mac returned to Emmitsburg in 1948, when Toss offered to sell him the hotel shop. With the help of Frankie Wastler, who had been Toss’s assistant for several years, the business continued to thrive, In 1966, Mac moved the business from the hotel to 15 East Main Street, attracted by the building’s big picture window, which allowed not only the sun in, but the gazes of prospective customers. In 1960, Frankie left Emmitsburg to establish his own business in Frederick. Mac continued on alone in Emmitsburg until retiring in April 1994. 

James T. Welty, a contemporary of Toss and Mac began barbering at 528 West Main Street in 1964, and closed his shop in 1976. Jim attributes his demise as a barber to the introduction of the Beatles, who brought with them a craze for longer hair. 

Whether it really was the Beatles, or the closing of St. Joseph’s College, or the many factories that once provided the citizens of Emmitsburg with jobs, one by one the old red and white barber poles that once dotted Emmitsburg disappeared. Recently, however, barbering in Emmitsburg has undergone a resurgence. Be it busy white-collar, nostalgically oriented professionals wanting to catch up on local news, families seeking refuge from high priced “factory” barber shops, or simply the realization that Emmitsburg barbers give better haircuts, at 1/5 the price of their Washington counterparts, barbering is growing. Now, if we could only convince one of them to do shaves.

Have your own memories of Emmitsburg Barbers? 
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net