Sunday Stories: Barber Jim: James Fernando Humphrey

Excerpted from the Sutherland Centennial 1891 – 1991, published in 1991.

James F. Humphrey was born in Illinois on April 22, 1875 to Benonia and Elizabeth Humphrey. 

James died in January, 1936. His father Benonia, or Ben, as he was better known, was born in 1846 in Sidney, Ohio and died in 1922 in Sutherland, Nebraska. Jim’s mother, Elizabeth was born in 1855 in Hartford City, Indiana and died in 1918 in Sutherland. They had three sons, James, Rance and Elmer. Elmer died at the age of eighteen.
James, better known as Jim, married Irma Jane Pierson, May 3, 1900 in Paxton, Nebraska. They were the parents of four children, Harold Elmer, John Benonia, Howard James and Mirene Irma. Rance married Irma’s sister, Lilly Pierson and had two children, Melvin and Velda.

“Barber Jim” opened his first barber shop in Sutherland in December 1898. This shop consisted of one barber chair in the print shop where he worked. He placed an advertisement in the Sutherland Courier in May 1899 stating he was now an agent for the North Platte Steam Laundry and in January 1901 he was an agent for the Kearney Steam Laundry. In February 1902 Jim moved his barber shop across the street into a new building that he had moved from Elsie, Nebraska. This shop was located across the alley north of the present Post Office. At this time he began selling cigars, nuts and confectionery items as well as handling laundry for the North Platte Steam Laundry. In May 1905, “Barber Jim” installed one of the latest hydraulic chairs in his shop. This was a first for Sutherland.
In April 1908, an item in the Courier states that the showcases and confectionery outfit have been removed from the “Whiskers Emporium” to make way for further improvements. In 1917, something new was added again, Dry Cleaning, as well as laundry was handled at the barber shop. Family washings were nine cents a pound, suits cleaned and pressed for $1.25.
Jim continued his business for a number of years until he moved into the new brick building he had built. This building was then moved to just west of the Myers Grocery store on the east-west street, west of the Farmers State Bank. A creamer was located in the old building until it was later moved once more to the southeast part of Sutherland.

The brick building had three businesses under one roof. The barber shop in the center, the north one was the post office for several years, and the south one was rented, mostly to drug stores.

This barber shop had three chairs. The regular customers each had their own shaving brush. The owner’s name was inscribed on each cup. There were also mugs for walk-ins. Three large mirrors mounted on the wall had a lot of ornate wooden frames. A marble shelf stretched across the bottom of the mirrors, and a smaller mirror was on the west end of the shop. Later there were three long, narrow mirrors just above the three wooden waiting benches. There was a large clock installed on the south wall, where anyone passing by could see the time.

Jim had other barbers working in the summer. Jim and Irma had an orchard with apple and cherry trees and berry bushes. They always had a large garden to tend to in the summer. You either canned the fruits, vegetables, and meat or you didn’t eat the next winter. By this time, Harold was doing part of the barbering. John and Howard were doing jobs around the shop like sweeping up the hair, cleaning the sink, bringing up the coal for the heating stove and taking out the ashes.

Several families in town had their own milk cow. To make things easier, these cows were herded together and taken out to pasture by various young boys in town. In the evening, the cows were located by the sound of a big cow bell hung around the neck of one of the cows. Then the boys again would bring “The Town Herd” as it was commonly called, back home, dropping them off at their rightful owners.

Jim always walked to and from work, no matter how hot or cold. He always walked like he was going to a fire. He took his lunch part of the time and always on Saturdays. The barber shop was a good warm place for the men to get together for a good man-to-man talk. The Humphreys lived in a house on west Locust Street.

Barbering wasn’t all done in the barber shop. The dirty towels were taken home to be washed and ironed. This was before electricity and with a push and pull wooden tub washer. The irons were called “Sad Irons” and were heated on a cook stove. This was fine in the winter, but pretty hot in the summer. Hanging the towels to dry in the winter was not fun either. They were frozen before you could get the clothes pins on them and you thought your hands were frozen too.

When we did get electricity, it was only on Monday and Tuesday mornings. There was no question as to when you washed and ironed. The electricity was turned on in the evenings again, with the generators being turned off about 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. There would be a little blink and you knew you had five minutes until you called it a day. We did not have the electricity twenty-four hours a day until about 1921… and this was what people call the “Good Old Days!”

In 1925, John B. Humphrey went to Moller Barber College. He worked with his father Jim until Jim’s death in 1936. John stayed in the barber shop until he hired out as a fireman on the Union Pacific Railroad in 1942.

In March 1939, the Humphrey’s sold the north building that housed the Post Office, to Ivan Gordon. Ivan and Clara Gordon installed a refrigerated Locker Storage Plant at that time. For $10.00 a year you could rent a refrigerated locker that would hold 225 pounds of frozen food or for $12.50 you could rent a larger drawer type locker that would hold 300 pounds of frozen items.

John B. Humphrey retired as an Engineer with the Union Pacific Railroad in November, 1971.
This is what we refer to as “The Good Old Days.” I have loved every minute of it. Of course, life is much easier now. John was eighty four in June 1990 and I (Lucille) was eighty two in September 1990. We celebrated our sixty third anniversary on June 6, 1990.

Submitted by Lucille Wilcott Humphrey and Charles and Marilyn Humphrey.


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