Shave and a haircut, since ’46

Fort Dodge barber Art Mason, whose shop is in the basement of the Wahkonsa Building, is part of rapidly disappearing breed.

He’s one of only a handful of traditional barbers working in the area.

“When I came here in ’46, Fort Dodge was really a booming town,” he said.

He said about 40 or 50 barbers were working in the downtown area then.

“They were large shops,” he said. “Most of them had five chairs.”

From his shop in the basement, Mason has witnessed many changes over the years and even seen some history go by on Central Avenue.

He watched then-candidate John F. Kennedy ride down the street in a convertible.

“He waved, and I thought he was waving at me,” he said.

While hair fashions have changed over the years, the most radical and sudden change he recalls was caused by the invasion of four young men from Liverpool.

It meant learning some techniques.

“The Beatles,” Mason said. “We had to go get retrained to do long hair.”

He said that during his early days in business, Mondays were marathons.

“We were open from 9 to 9,” he said. “That was a long day.”

Of course, it was a break compared to Saturday. He said they would stay open as late as the customers lasted.

“The men wanted to look good for church on Sunday morning,” Mason said.

It was also common then for the customer to request a shave along with their haircut. He said the quality of that might very well determine whether the customer came back.

“If you couldn’t give a guy a good shave you wouldn’t cut his hair either,” he said.

The only instrument used then was a straight edge razor honed to perfection on a leather strop. He said they gave the customer a much better shave.

It was also common for the customer to request a shampoo and most shops also had a shoe shine stand, Mason said.

He said he saw his fellow barber shops disappear slowly.

“The hair cutting chains put a big clamp on it,” he said. “You can’t compete.”

One of the areas where a barber can compete is with the flat top, once a very popular style, there are few left who can give one.

“I still do them,” Mason said, “The flat top is a very difficult haircut.”

His favorite?

“I can’t get enough of those old ’40s haircuts,” he said.

Mason also keeps the era alive with a collection of music from the same period. In fact, he won’t work without it.

“I can’t cut hair without music,” he said. “When I put on some of that Dorsey music, the hair really flies.”

Customer Bud Weaver said Mason not only gives him a terrific haircut, but offers good conversation too.

“It’ s more than just a haircut,” Weaver said. “(Barbers) have to know how to talk to people, it’s as important as the haircut itself.”

For Mason, that also means being a diplomat with his customers, especially if the conversation lands on something controversial such as politics.

“You have to be careful what you say,” he said.

As Mason neared the end of Weaver’s haircut, he reached for a straight edge razor, he began using it to add a final trim to the job in a method called the Roffler Technique.

“It’s all done with a razor,” he said. “That’s my ace in the hole.”

Like the flat top, learning this wasn’t easy.

“It took a long time to master that,” he said. “You don’t learn it overnight.”

Mason does limit his hours to weekday mornings but he’s still there, just like he’s been since 1946.

“It gets me out of the house, pays the rent and maybe buys a six pack now and then,” he said.