SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


The Stedman Barbershop to join roster of memories
By June Allen


September 15, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - One of the last of Ketchikan's notable old downtown businesses will soon become another nostalgic memory. The words painted in gold leaf on the Front Street window of the Stedman Barber Shop have long and proudly proclaimed "Since 1910." That's almost a hundred years! But, before the end of 2006, the Stedman's venerable old barber chairs will be moved out and replaced by jewelry display cases in anticipation of next year's visitor season.

While the many recent changes downtown are bittersweet to most and probably just plain bitter to some of the town's oldtimers, in reality there is the indisputable fact that there have been major shifts in the region's economy over the past century. The days of the fish canneries, the logging and the pulp mill, those sturdy industries that kept the town ticking in the past, are now largely fond memories. Tourism is lively today, and it is lucrative. It helps pay the community's bills.

jpg Stedman Barbershop

Front Street looking north from Dock Street, circa 1900
Donor: Pioneer Igloo # 16, Tongass Historical Society
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Ketchikan's slice of the Alaska tourism pie began to grow back in the late '70s and early '80s with the appearance each summer season of the giant cruise ships and their hordes of delighted "shopaholic" passengers. At first it was heady and exciting. Now, at the start of each season, locals loiter on the dock and watch the activity. By season's end, they ignore it. By then they're looking forward to the winter quiet when their streets are no longer clogged with big busses and their sidewalks are all their own again. 

On the downtown docks during the busy visitor season, local stevedores skillfully sling lines up to the vessel's crews and the ships are tied up snugly. Lined up stern to bow alongside the wharves, at high tide the vessels' hulks loom like 10-story structures over the comparatively tiny wooden buildings clustered along  Ketchikan's waterfront. The rails of the ships are lined with passengers staring at the scene below and the locals ashore gawking at the visitors. Ketchikan homefolk realize it's time to temporarily drive around and not through the clogged downtown district!

Gangplanks are dropped into place against the rough and usually wet dock planking and the rubbernecks ashore crane their necks to stare at the passengers as they disembark. Gripping handrails and watching their feet, visitors soon clamber down the springy and sometimes slightly swinging gangplanks and, testing their rubbery sea-legs, step onto the dock. Then they fan out, hesitantly at first, and once they get their bearings and test their balance, they head for the concrete sidewalks and the many shops waiting for them.

jpg Ketchikan

Ketchikan looking north from the foot of Front Street, Tongass Historical Society
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

The proliferation of the city's jewelry shops attest to Alaska travelers' proven taste in souvenirs and reminders of visits to the exotic north. Visitors shop not only for trinkets  for acquaintances back home but for more costly stones and gold ornaments for themselves and loved ones.  They buy lots of them!

With these huge modern ships dominating the picture, it's easy to forget that  tourism is not new to Ketchikan! It has been a dependable mainstay of the economy as far back as the early 20th century years when the popular items for sale were gold nuggets and jewelry, Native moccasins, authentically carved miniature totem poles and local art.

During all those years the barber chairs in the Stedman barber shop, which is just across the street from the docks, are, and were, grandstand seats to watch the strangers strolling by, to see the big and jam-packed tour buses lumber past. Still popular to share in the barber shop were and are all the latest news and gossip items around town. Patrons had been sharing stories and waterfront updates in those barber chairs for almost a century.

jpg Parade 1914

Parade in honor of the passage of the Alaska Railway Bill, March 16, 1914
Photographer: Harriet Hunt -- Donor: Forest J. Hunt, Tongass Historical Society
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Patrons can still glance up and see the large, and framed photograph of the staid and stately Stedman Hotel in its earliest days.. The Stedman Barber Shop has always been located in the Front Street corner of the historic hotel, since the long-ago days when Ketchikan's streets were narrower and when horse-drawn drawn dray wagons and Tin Lizzies clattered over those plank streets.

In the hallway that separates the barbershop from the next-door corner Downtown Drugstore there is still an old trapdoor in the concrete floor. It's easy to picture that trap door opened and leaned carefully against the wall during "deliveries." In the days of national Prohibition, many a skiff slipped quietly in on the tides that ebb and flow under the old hostelry, to deliver bootleg booze to the hotel's storerooms. It's easy to imagine all that activity of those long-gone days! They were lively ones, those early day Ketchikan folk!

A glance at any formal photograph of Ketchikan's pioneers also reveals the elegant tonsorial styles of a century ago. The need for barbers is evident! Those elegant handlebar mustaches, the carefully trimmed goatees as well as those neatly clipped necklines over high white collars needed the best of professional attention.

The art of barbering has been around since the Stone Ages. So it's not surprising that barbers were among the ranks of those Alaska Gold Rush "stampeders" who came north on a chance of making a fortune. Like thousands of others, they never intended to dig or pan for the gold themselves. They knew that Gold Rush towns springing up overnight and bulging at the seams would need services of every kind, and experienced barbers  would be in on the action.

 jpg Stedman Barbershop

The Stedman Barbershop is in the lower left corner...
Front Street looking east, circa 1955
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari
Donor: Paulu T. Saari, KM
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

The brand new City of Ketchikan's 1900 Petition for Incorporation lists two signatures of barbers on the application list, those of Charles Deppe and L.W. Appel. Deppe's name shows up again in the Polk's 1903 Directory, but Appel's does not. Turnover was expected in early Alaska.

Jack Close was among the first barbers in town, his shop was located somewhere in the lobby area of the Stedman Hotel. The Stedman was built in 1905, and was Ketchikan's premier hostelry at the time. Jack Close, born in Brooklyn in 1868, came to Ketchikan in 1906 to work first in the Raber Barbershop, location not stated. Old newspaper items show that Close opened his own shop in the Stedman Hotel a few years later. Close kept barbering until his retirement in the early 1950s.

Even after retiring Close "kept his shears in working order to barber patients in the hospital and those confined to their homes," newspaper accounts reveal. He and his wife Dollie lived in their home on Bawden Street. He belonged the Pioneers of Alaska , the Elks Club, and he "rattled the bones" for the town's Ragtime Band. He died in 1963 at age 94. So many names of barbers in the unwritten Story of Ketchikan's History!

Names of barbers from the Stedman shop in more recent history drift across the memory, in no particular order (and probably misspelled): Joe Sadlier, the "Flying Barber," and his late wife Elaina; Jack Hillberry; Paul Matthews; Bud Knight; Vern Ramsay; Joanne Kyllonen, and no doubt many, many others.

It's fun to think back and try to remember all those names of people we saw every day, people we called by their first names, our friends, and confidants in this small town who probably knew more about us that we cared to admit. But they never spilled the beans!


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