West Fargo's bearded barber stepping down
West Fargo's most famous 'bearded barber' has packed away the tools of his trade following a highly successful and gratifying 44 year-run, with his official retirement as owner-operator of The Barber Hut, on Wednesday, Dec. 29, at the end of the regular business day.
Jokingly, Al Nelson, said his first order of business would be to "smash his alarm clock," signifying that the start of his day would no longer be dictated by the ringing of any type of bell.
A good thing in his book, although he said he is going to miss that daily experience called 'work,' even though he objects to that term, because Nelson said he never actually considered what he did as work.
In fact, he wants people to know that he "loved going to the shop each day. I don't think I missed ten days in 40 years for being sick. I had surgery a couple of times that laid me up but that's about it. I guess that's just the way it was because I loved my job. I told people I'm going to miss coming to work and visiting with 15 friends each and every day."
Nelson was Minnesota raised, in the small town of Karlstad; and following high school graduation worked for six years in the construction business in Minnesota and on the missile bases in North Dakota.
Prior to, and during this time, he dated and married his high school sweetheart Sharon Schmidt on June 3, 1961. By the time he decided to enroll in Moler Barber College in the fall of 1965, he and Sharon were already the parents of their two daughters, Sheree, who now lives in Fargo, and has two children of her own, Emerald, 17, and Radek, 14; and Heidi, who resides in St. Paul and has a ten-year-old daughter, Evelyn. Son Steve, who makes his home in West Fargo, joined the family in 1979.
Nelson said he had thought long and hard about becoming a barber before actually entering the profession, influenced and inspired by the man who cut his hair while growing up in Karlstad.
He went on to graduate from barber school in the summer of 1966 and joined Shorty Wilson in his West Fargo Main Avenue location, just a block west of where the Barber Hut currently operates at 213 E. Main Ave. Wilson left shortly thereafter and Nelson remained (still an apprentice) working with Orlan Rokke for seven years, before solely taking over the shop in 1974, moving to his present site in 1977, which was a better location that provided room for additional expansion.
Nelson remained comfortable in his niche through the years, noting that specific hair trends constantly teetered. "When I first started barbering it was short hair. Then it went to long hair; then back to short, short hair; and now it seems to be long hair again."
"In the late 60s and 70s, we did a lot of perms on men and these turned out to be really good years. Getting $40 for a perm in the 1970s meant a lot of money for us."
No doubt, helping with some of those perms was part-time employee Lynn Rolstad, who still remains a shop employee after a 30 year association.
West Fargoan Brenda Green was also a familiar face at the shop, working there for several years; as was Dan Pergande, Bobbi Power, Judy Schobinger, Cindy Bladow, the late Kathy Hill, and many will remember Pete Pederson, who barbered alongside Nelson for a number of years before switching professions and now operating a successful bowling alley in Casselton.
Nelson said that Pederson still remains in the loop, stopping in on a regular basis for haircuts.
Other 'fixtures' at the shop have included Marvin Leidal, a 42-year customer, and Paul Tefft, who made it a point to visit the fourth week of every month, amassing an impressive 457 haircuts.
Nelson was always visible five days a week in the shop and many times in the early years on Saturday, until taking the pace down a notch three years ago, devoting only three days a week, Monday through Wednesday, leaving Thursday open for his much beloved golf game at Maple River Golf Course, with many of his customer buddies.
It is safe to say that a large number of Nelson's in-shop relationships have budded into longtime friendships. "You get to know the whole family," he said with a huge smile on his face. "Over the years we got invited to many graduations, weddings, and now in the later years, we've been attending a lot of funerals."
In fact, Nelson has gotten to know 'whole families' so well his skills developed into at least one four-generation haircutting stint, starting with the late Carl Houkom, extending to his son Irv Houkom, and then Irv's sons, David and Brian, on down to David's son, Seth.
Another West Fargo family that Nelson barbered regularly was Larry Lubben, and son, David, who always scheduled an appointment even after he moved away and came back to town for visits. Dave also brought his son, Noah, in for his very first haircut.
Aside from haircuts, Larry Lubben and Nelson also share a special bond as longtime members of the West Fargo Exchange Club, with Nelson deservedly honored in 1995-1996 as Exchangite of the Year for his various community contributions.
Lubben said he "always enjoyed Al's excellent sense of humor and the jokes he would tell each time you went in for a cut. It was your typical Barber Shop - catching up on all of the things going on in the community through his clients. I will really miss him but plan to continue seeing him at Exchange meetings."
Other Exchangites are also looking forward to that same continued association. On that note, members of the organization wanted to make sure that there was a 'fitting conclusion' to Nelson's final day on-the-job, Dec. 29.
Consequently, they arranged an 'as authentic as possible' fake arrest, complete with West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen and Assistant Chief Mike Reitan showing up at The Barber Hut at 5 p.m. stating "we have a problem here." Then came the arrival of the squad car, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, and the handcuffing of Nelson for a variety of "premeditated crimes on society" including: retiring from work after 44 years; planning to go on more walks with his dog Clifford; planning to spend more time harassing his lovely wife, Sharon; planning to no longer tell stories and jokes to a captive customer in the barber chair; and planning to no longer shave people bald for contests and challenges.
Next he was hauled off to Legends Grill & Bar, the site of monthly Exchange Club meetings, greeted by a room full of people waiting for him, along with an explanatory happy retirement sign complete with a picture of Sharon and Al with his cap on backwards riding a three-wheeler during a former vacation in Mexico.
Nelson admitted that he was "totally surprised," although he figured something was up when names unfamiliar to him called and booked haircuts for that day after 5 p.m. as a ploy to keep him there.
What followed was a tribunal roasting by the West Fargo Exchange Club Court of Honor, with testimony by a number of witnesses, including Marv Leidal, who poked good-natured fun at Nelson's sideburn cutting abilities. "Some people like their sideburns a little bushy, others like theirs clean shaven and neat. Al usually gives me one of each," Leidal exclaimed.
Paul Tefft also appeared on the witness stand with little pieces of tissue paper stuck all over his face, declaring that he had just had a shave at The Barber Hut.
When the verdict was finally read, Nelson was found guilty on all counts sentencing him to an 44 additional years at The Barber Hut, as well as conduct unbecoming a barber, with a sentence of having his beard shaved off immediately.
After speaking about Nelson's atrocities on society, including a statement saying 'I know he tells all these jokes to people, none of which I can use in my sermons,' Pastor Peter Schmidt plead for the sentence to be commuted.
It worked and Nelson thankfully found himself off the hook, with his sentence ultimately commuted to retirement, in turn sparing the demise of his signature trademark beard.
The occasion also proved to be gratifying for another reason - the signing of a special proclamation by West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern, designating Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010, as Al Nelson Day. The proclamation appropriately glorified Al Nelson's sense of humor as reasoning behind "a great number of West Fargo citizens naming the Barber Hut 'the place to go.' If you don't need a haircut, stop in for a new joke, has been Al's motto."
Reflecting on the occasion, Nelson said he felt "so honored" by all the attention, and especially having as many family members present as possible.
Family and friends will have another opportunity to honor Nelson at a special open house retirement party on Thursday, Jan. 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., in the lower level of the West Fargo VFW, 308 Sheyenne Street. Refreshments will be served; and everyone is welcome to stop in and visit and give Nelson the proper send-off as he concludes his longtime career.
Upon departing from his role as familiar barber, Nelson will not be totally dropping off the West Fargo radar screen. He plans to remain active with the West Fargo Exchange Club; continue his golfing and recreational affiliation with the Maple River Golf Course; as well as nurture the ongoing family membership with Faith Lutheran Church since 1968, where Sharon's brother, Peter Schmidt, serves as pastor.
Retirement plans also include downsizing from the Nelson's present South Fargo home to a condominium so they can be a little more free spirited in their travel, beginning with a ten day vacation planned this month to Hawaii as an early observance of their 50th wedding anniversary. Sharon retired in 2001, after teaching kindergarten since 1969, mostly in the Fargo School District, so she too is looking forward to enjoying a little more leisure time with her husband.
As for The Barber Hut, Nelson has turned the reigns over to the capable hands of Jeremy Keller, who has been at the shop the last six years. A native of Bisbee, N.D., he graduated from Molar Barber College, worked in Brenda Green's shop for a while, and spent four years in a Minot Shop before joining The Barber Hut.
Nelson said he has no doubt that Keller will carry on the same fine tradition that he has tried to instill in his shop for over four decades. Serving on the North Dakota Board of Barber Examiners for six years, Nelson said he often gave presentations to Barber College students. "I would always tell them that barbering is a business of building friendships. If you build enough friendships, you are going to be very successful. That is the foundation my business was built off of. Through the years, I have been truly blessed by all the wonderful customers I've had the opportunity to come in contact with. The people of West Fargo and the surrounding communities have been very good to me and my family."
It's obvious his customers feel the same way about his professional abilities. Direct evidence appears to be all the hugs he's been receiving lately, "Steve Baird, who received his first haircut from me and every one since, stopped in the other day to take a picture, and wish me well," said Nelson, "as did Jonathan Funk of Moorhead, whose hair I also cut exclusively."
Nelson admits he's leaving The Barber Hut with mixed emotions but definitely knows the time is right to step down. Luckily though, he won't be out of the picture totally. He'll still be stopping in for regular haircuts with Jeremy and also maybe share a joke or two with any one fortunate enough to be visiting the shop at the same time. "Jeremy's been cutting my hair for years," Nelson quipped. "The only difference is now I'll have to pay for it!"