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Barbershop Duet: Palmyra, Mo., pair have been luring customers back with wit and good cheer since 1967

Barbers Lewis Wiesemann, left, and Johnny Suter, right, cut the hair of Billy Coons, left, and Coons’ son, 14-year-old Dakota Coons, in the Wiesemann & Suter Barber Shop in downtown Palmyra, Mo. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Jul. 21, 2013 12:28 am Updated: Nov. 28, 2014 4:18 pm
Barber Johnny Suter pauses cutting hair to show a picture of his playing days on the 1957 Gardner Denver softball team to customer Leon Drebes. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Palmyra motorists knew they could set their watches to the correct time simply by driving past the Wiesemann & Suter Barber Shop at 302 S. Main. A big, yellow clock is visible through the window, so passersby could always tell the time, day or night.

However, a glitch caused the clock to stop working a few weeks ago. Time since has been frozen at 8:53.

That's appropriate, in a way, because visitors to this cheery corner business often believe the calendar has paused as well. It's as if it's still 1967, the year Lewis Wiesemann and Johnny Suter teamed up to buy the business and start a partnership that flourishes to this day, 46 years later.

"It's kind of like The Andy Griffith Show' with Floyd the barber," said Bill Potterfield of Monroe City, who has been getting haircuts at the Palmyra shop for years.

Wiesemann & Suter is a throwback to the days when barbershops could be found in nearly every city and village. These convivial gathering spots primarily serve men but also occasionally children and, every now and then, even a woman.

As barbershops have gradually dwindled in number, places like Wiesemann & Suter have become rarities.

Lewis, 79, and Johnny, 77, say they have no plans to step down. Lewis has 61 years of barbering experience, and Johnny has 52.

"I'm too young to retire," Johnny said. "We've got to have something to do. We're too young to go down to Hardee's and sit with the old men."

Lewis realizes he'll have to consider retiring at some point.

"I never thought I'd go this long," he admitted. "When I turn 80 (on Oct. 19), I'm going to decide if I'm going to work longer or retire. I'm going to talk to my kids about it."

Until then, Lewis and Johnny plan to keep striving to make the shop a friendly, welcoming place for their customers.

"We have a lot of fun," Lewis said.

 

Close in several ways

The two men not only built a career together by cutting hair, but their lives have intertwined in multiple ways.

Back around 1957 or so, Johnny, who grew up in the Monticello area, got tired of working on the family farm and landed a job as a crane operator at the old Gardner-Denver plant in LaGrange. Needing a haircut one day, he walked into a LaGrange barbershop owned by Lewis, a LaGrange native who started working at that location in 1952 after attending barber school in St. Louis.

They hit it off right away.

As Lewis was cutting Johnny's hair, Johnny looked out the window and saw a pretty young woman walking down the street.

"I said, I think I'm going to ask her for a date,' " he recalled.

Lewis replied: "Go ahead. That's my sister-in-law."

Johnny not only asked the girl -- Joyce Breuer, sister of Lewis' wife, Joan -- for a date. He eventually asked for her hand in marriage. They were married Oct. 9, 1959, just a month after Johnny got out of the Army.

Johnny became interested in barbering while in the military. He said it was important for soldiers to have their hair looking neat for Saturday inspections.

"But we couldn't get to a barber shop, so we got to cutting each other's hair," he said. "One guy said, Hey, why don't you get a pair of clippers and we'll pay you to cut our hair. You cut better than the barbers.' That's how I got started."

After the Army, Johnny went to a barber school in St. Louis. After graduating in 1961, he got a job as an apprentice in the Palmyra barbershop, then owned by longtime barber Archie Pugh. Pugh operated the corner shop for about 65 years. When he retired in 1967, he sold the business to Johnny and Lewis.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Lewis and Johnny not only work side by side, but they also live across from each other on Palmyra's Easy Street. They go to the same church. They attend the same family functions. Sometimes their families even go on vacation together.

"His kids and my kids are like brothers," Lewis said.

Johnny's son Joey and Lewis' son Mark both played in 1979 on Palmyra High School's basketball team that captured the Class 2A state championship with a 29-0 record. The shop was closed that day so Johnny and Lewis could cheer at the state title game in Columbia.

"The whole town closed down," Johnny recalled. "The last person out turned off the light."

A framed photo of the 1979 team hangs on the wall in the barbershop with dozens of other family pictures, plaques and memorabilia.

One plaque in particular is special. It was given to Lewis and Johnny two years ago by the Palmyra Chamber of Commerce, which recognized them and fellow local businessman Bob Powell as the first inductees into the community's Business Hall of Fame.

 

Pleasantries of life

It's a Wednesday afternoon in June, and the door to the Wiesemann & Suter Barber Shop swishes opens as Courtney Janes of Palmyra arrives with her two sons -- Jackson, 8, and Jonas, who turned 6 that day.

Mom wanted Jonas to get a haircut "so he won't have his bed head" when his birthday pictures are taken.

Johnny cheerfully greeted the family.

"Hi there! How are you guys?"

Jackson jumped into Johnny's barber chair while Jonas took a seat next to his mother on a row of chairs lining the storefront window inside the 20-foot by 60-foot shop.

Suter asked the Janeses how they like living in the country.

"We love living in the country," Courtney replied. "We find frogs and turkeys and lots of ticks. And we have a pet owl. He lives behind our house."

Johnny said he, too, has lots of wildlife in his yard.

"Hey, I've got two squirrels that get real friendly. They'll come up and take nuts right out of your hand," Johnny told the visitors.

Johnny pulled a cellphone from his pocket and showed Jackson a picture of a squirrel he named Buddy. A couple minutes later, Courtney had her phone out, sharing a picture she had taken of the barred owl living in her backyard.

So it goes at the Wiesemann & Suter Barber Shop, where the pleasantries of life are celebrated daily while locks of hair flutter gently to the floor.

Courtney said she enjoys bringing her sons to this old-fashioned barbershop.

"It's convenient, it's masculine, it's a fun atmosphere, it's great entertainment, and it's right up from their Daddy's office," she said. "We don't have to make an appointment. We just walk in, and it's the same people every time."

James Boettcher, an 87-year-old Palmyra resident, said he got his first haircut at the shop. He said he was a regular customer of Archie Pugh, the former owner, and he remained a regular when Lewis and Johnny took over.

He loves to come and verbally spar with the two barbers and other friends who congregate in the shop, which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and from 6:30 to noon on Saturdays.

"They've got it made," Boettcher said. "They work a couple days and take off."

It wasn't always like that, Lewis insisted. The two barbers work a somewhat reduced schedule now, but when Lewis first started in the business in 1952, the days were longer and harder. He said he would routinely work past midnight on Saturdays because customers kept showing up as long as his LaGrange shop stayed open.

Lewis finally announced he would be closing at 9 p.m. on Saturdays. That next Saturday he locked the door at 9 o'clock and wouldn't let anyone else inside.

"I had 19 guys sitting there waiting," he said.

After a while, Lewis' Saturday schedule gradually tapered off.

But working as a barber is still not easy.

"It's a lot of hours, and you're on your feet and you've got your arms up a lot," Lewis said. "But I liked it when I first started, and I still like it. I don't mind coming to work."

The workday used to be even busier for Lewis and Johnny. They owned and operated the Palmyra Printing Co. from 1969 to 2000 -- in addition to running the barber shop full time. They bought the necessary equipment from their mutual father-in-law, W.L. Breuer, after he retired as owner/editor of the LaGrange Indicator newspaper and from running a job-printing business.

Lewis and Johnny eventually dropped the printing business, but they still didn't slow down.

For about 12 years they traveled to Lewistown on Tuesday nights to cut hair in a beauty shop, because there weren't any barbershops in that immediate area. Today, many of their former customers from the Lewistown area come to Palmyra regularly to get their hair cut.

"They're about the only ones around," Chuck Wall said. Wall drove from Hannibal to get a trim because his local barber recently closed his shop.

Lewis said, "The sad thing about it is when Johnny and I close up, there's not going to be anybody here."

That's worrisome for David Meyers of Palmyra, who has been coming to their shop regularly for the past 10 years.

"I don't know what we're going to do when they're not around anymore," he said. "Go to the beauty shop, I guess."

Meyers said he enjoys coming to the Palmyra barbershop because the two owners are nice, likeable guys.

"Everybody knows them," he said. "Plus, you get caught up on all the local gossip in here."

"Facts and information, David," Johnny intoned. "Get it correct."

"That's right," Lewis concurred. "They gossip at the beauty shop. We have the facts."

 

Splitting the daily take

Lewis and Johnny have remained business partners and good friends because they see eye-to-eye on many things.

"We get along good," Lewis said. "We have never, ever had an argument."

They handle the shop's finances today the same way they did when they opened the business. At the end of each day, they see what's inside the cash register and split it.

"I take the 20s, and I leave the ones for him, 50-50," Johnny joked.

"I get the 50s and 100s," Lewis countered.

Even when one goes on vacation, the other sets aside half of the daily proceeds to turn over as the partner's share upon his return.

Lewis and Johnny charge $12 for a haircut. That's up appreciably from the 65 cents charged when Lewis first became a barber in 1952. Johnny, who started his career in 1961, said he came along "when they were making the really big money: $1.25."

Both men are proud they have earned enough to put their sons through college, buy nice homes, live comfortable lives and even have some left over for retirement -- if they ever retire, that is.

It hasn't been all rosy. Two years ago, after experiencing pain in his chest, Lewis had triple bypass heart surgery. The surgery went fine, but he developed an infection in his leg and didn't work for six weeks.

Lewis also was literally knocked off his feet in 1977 when the motorcycle he was driving was hit by a car. He suffered shoulder, back and eye injuries and remained in the hospital for nine days.

"I didn't think he was going to make it," Johnny said. "I thought I was going to have to replace him with a blonde."

To this day, Lewis has numbness in his feet and part of his face and one hand. He does regular exercises to keep his shoulder limber, and he walks every day to keep his cardiovascular system healthy.

Lewis believes working in the barbershop is good because it keeps him active.

"I need to have something to do," he said. "If you sit down, you die."

 

Story behind barber pole

Three red, white and blue striped barber poles adorn the exterior of the shop.

Two of the poles are fashioned out of support pillars lining either side of the outer doorway. The other barber pole is a smaller, electronic device that revolves inside a glass globe. Lewis brought the smaller pole with him in 1967 when he closed his shop in LaGrange and became partners with Johnny.

The poles have taken a beating over the years.

One time a motorist lost control of his car and crashed through the front of the barbershop, knocking one of the barber pole pillars a little off kilter.

A few weeks ago, a young boy walking down Main Street noticed the set of golf clubs Lewis had placed out front to sell. The boy grabbed one of the clubs and took a practice swing. He shattered the glass globe on Lewis' prized barber pole.

The Minnesota company that makes the pole is still in business and shipped a replacement globe to the Palmyra shop. The young boy paid to replace the broken globe, as well as the labor costs associated with the repairs.

Johnny likes to tell the story behind the colors of the stripes on barber poles. It all started before the 17th century.

"There were barber surgeons," he said. "They did all the bloodletting. They had leeches and all that good stuff. And when they would bleed somebody, they would have bandages to stop the blood. They'd have an arm (attached to the building) outside, and they'd put those blood-stained bandages out there until they could wash them."

In later years, barbers decided to use blood-related colors as a symbol of their craft's heritage.

"The red stripe is for the articulated blood that's purified, the blue is the venous blood going back to the heart, and the white stripe represents the cleanliness of the establishment," Johnny said.

"In the 17th century, the surgeons decided to separate from the barbers. So the surgeons went on to become millionaires, and the barbers are still working."

Johnny joked that even though he and Lewis pride themselves on using modern-day barbering techniques, "we've let our share of blood" over the years.

They no longer offer shaves to customers. Concerns about transmitting bloodborne diseases prompted them to give up that practice about 15 years ago.

Johnny will never forget one of his last experiences shaving a customer. A big out-of-town trucker he had never met came into the shop and asked for a haircut and shave. The fellow seemed to be good-natured, so Johnny decided to have fun with him.

Years before, a friend had given Johnny an old straight razor. As a joke, the friend took a pair of pliers and broke a series of nicks into the cutting edge.

"It looked like a cross-cut saw," Johnny said. "We hung it up on the wall. And if somebody came in and said they wanted credit, I said I was going to use my credit razor.' "

Once he had the big truck driver lathered up, Johnny ceremoniously took down the special razor and approached the customer, with his hand visibly quivering, and said: "Lewis, what do I do now?' "

The trucker eyed Johnny suspiciously. He grinned and said: "I think you're kidding, but I'm starting to get a little worried."

After the trucker left the shop, another customer told Johnny: "You did that to a stranger? He'll never be back."

Two months later, the trucker paid another visit to the barbershop, entering with a big smile.

"I came to get a haircut," he said. "But this time you're not going to shave me."

 

-- ehusar@whig.com/221-3378

 

 

 

The Wiesemann & Suter Barber Shop at 302 S. Main has a ringside seat overlooking Palmyra’s downtown business district. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

 

Barber Johnny Suter lets out a laugh after a comment from Logan Foster, 9, during a haircut. “If I never got another haircut again, I’d look like Rapunzel,” Logan said. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

 

Toni Timbrook, left, shares a moment with her son, Peyton Timbrook, 10, as Peyton waits for a haircut. Barber Lewis Wiesemann is trimming the hair of 4-year-old Brennen Starman. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)