Growing up in Duluth’s West End (now called Lincoln Park) in the 1940s and early ’50s there were grocery stores on every other corner, some with butchers and bakers (I don’t recall any candlestick makers), shoe repair shops within easy walking distance and barber shops galore. Supermarkets? Unheard of.
This was the era when almost all men and boys got white sidewall haircuts and crew cuts, the latter more likely called “heinie” haircuts at the time, a reference to the German hairstyle popular earlier in the 20th century.
One barbershop in the West End was famous for crew cuts, sometimes also called flattops. Men and boys favoring that hairstyle came from throughout western Duluth to have master hair sculptor Gus Ruthberg trim their noggins as flat across the top as a grill brush.
Ruthberg’s shop was located at 223 North Twenty-first Avenue West, in a two-story frame building with an apartment upstairs where he resided with his wife. The site is now a vacant lot. (Readers with long memories might recall a column I wrote about barber Ruthberg years ago in the Duluth News Tribune.)
He was an institution in the West End, largely because of his ability to satisfy fussy clients who wanted their crew cuts perfect. But many of those clients had to endure the barber’s religious proselytizing as he clipped their hair while they sat trapped in his chair, a pinstripe shroud over their shoulders and midsection and tight tissue around the neck.
Ruthberg, a genial man with curly white hair when I knew him, had apparently led a more secular life before a profound religious conversion. I think he had served in the Navy during World War I. He had a ship’s anchor tattoo on the underside of his wrist that I admired greatly when I was a child.
In those days there was no calling ahead for an appointment. It was strictly first come, first served. Ruthberg was so popular that it wasn’t unusual to have seven or eight haircut seekers ahead of you, filling chairs at one end of the room and, when they were occupied, the window ledge and even an extra barber chair. As he completed a cut, those waiting moved ahead one chair until their turn. You could spend a couple of hours in his shop after school and barely make it home in time for supper.
But it was entertaining. Most clients who knew of Ruthberg’s religious zeal would wait for him to seize the opportunity to preach while he cut clients’ hair.
In those days, barbers, when they’d completed cutting an adult’s hair, would lather the edges extending from the sideburns, behind the ears and around the back of the neck, and shave the client with a straight-edge razor. It was a rite of passage in the West End when a boy got his first neck shave from Gus Ruthberg.
Sometimes at that point in the haircut Ruthberg would make his strongest religious point. With the freshly stropped straight-edge razor skimming the client’s neck perilously close to the jugular, he’d ask, “Are you ready to meet your maker?” He didn’t ask everyone, and never me, but those waiting would always be alert for that moment. Still, no one feared that he might be like Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. Far from it.
I was still a kid, probably about 12 or 13, when barber Ruthberg met his own maker. The last time I was in his shop he announced to everyone waiting that he’d gotten a new pair of crepe-soled shoes good for standing on your feet all day cutting hair. “They’ll last me the rest of my life,” I recall him saying.
They did. He dropped dead before my next haircut.