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The Farber Barber: Celebrating 50 years at the Institute of Higher Learning

Posted on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 at 12:27 pm

By Barry Dalton

Harold Williams, aka “the Farber Barber,” says he came to barbering, in a way, by accident.

“I was run over by a car on a motorcycle,” he says, “and they put pins in my leg. My sister, I love her dearly, thought that this would be a good trade for me.”

His sister was right. This year marks the 50th year that Williams has owned his own barber shop. Now 70, he bought his first shop in Farber from his pop in 1971. By 1975, though, he had established himself as a permanent fixture on Main Street Vandalia.

“My father had a building [in Farber] that was traditionally a barber shop,” Williams said. “Of course, it wasn’t one a lot of times [because] a lot of barbers were unreliable [back then] as far as paying rent and moving.”

That certainly has not been the case for Williams. He’s been living in Farber and working in Vandalia for most of his life. He said he moved his business to Vandalia permanently because there wasn’t enough business in Farber.

“I’m not a believer in moving around,” Williams said. “I settle my roots, and I stay.”

He’s done more than that, though. Over the years, he’s served as an alderman, acted in plays with Martha Jane Pease–the ‘Grand Dame of Vandalia,” participated in haunted houses, served on various boards, such as the Ambulance Board and the 911 Board, and has even played Santa Claus on numerous occasions (that last one’s a secret).

He’s also been known to hang around with the “Mo-Mo Monster.”

You can see a buffalo coat that Williams donated to the Vandalia Area Historical Society that he says came from a gentleman outside of Farber.

“Many years, we did the Mo-Mo Monster around Vandalia with [the buffalo coat],” Williams said. “It’s a relic and it belongs in the museum.”

Apparently sometime in the early 70s, the Mo-Mo Monster was a thing in eastern Audrain County.

“Supposedly, they saw a sasquatch over in Louisiana, Mo.,” Williams explained. “And they heard it, and there was a great panic, and they brought national news. In fact, they used to have a Mo-Mo Fest up in Louisiana. It’s quite a deal. Some people said it perpetuated a hoax, I don’t know.”

Williams admits that some of his very tall friends and cousins may have used the buffalo coat to pull some pranks on locals, but they also wore it during parades.

“One of the boys was like 6’4”, we’d put him in it, and scare the heck out of them,” he said.

Williams has a passion for local history. Drop by his barber shop any time, and he’ll talk your ear off about history, but he’s also learned to be a good listener over the years. There’s no topic that he and his friends and customers can’t have a healthy exchange of perspective about. He’s a Civil War buff who had two ancestors who fought in the Civil War–one with the Union and one with the Confederacy.

“The Union [soldier] fought at Gettysburg, and the Confederate, he was a POW for two years in Alton. He was captured, got out and immediately joined the Confederacy again, fought in Shreveport and was captured again. He was on the steamship Sultana when it sank, and he was one of the few survivors. It was the largest maritime accident in history before Pearl Harbor. 1,500 died and 500 or 600 survived. He survived that. And it made me appreciate both sides.”

More than anything, he’s never thought about changing professions because he loves the communities he serves.

“It’s just my comfort zone,” he says. “I like Vandalia and Farber and Laddonia and all of those areas.”

Williams used to actively collect barber memorabilia but has since donated much of it to the historical museum. He also has some decorative razors that he says he’ll probably donate in the name of Bob Pabst and Harvey Evans, two of the barbers he worked with and learned from in the past.

“I respected them both so much. Good, good people,” he said.

Williams got married to his wife, Ruth, when he was 23, and he credits her as the reason he’s been involved in so many civic activities over the years.

“I get aggravated at times,” he says. “But she’s a very good influence on me. Her and her family were always concerned with the community and helping the community. She’s supported me, and I’ve tried to support her. I think we got used to one another. We have common religion, common interests, common values.”

Ruth currently serves on the Farber Board of Aldermen. The couple have two grown children, Heath and Heather, who each have two daughters.

“Four beautiful girls,” he says with pride, and then brags on them a bit like grandfathers do.

Williams has survived five bypasses, and even a brief case of COVID, but he says he’s not ready to retire anytime soon. He spends his free time riding around Farber on his golf carts or in his old red pickup, going to local ball games and “piddling over at the ball diamond.”

“I’m a piddler,” Williams says.

He’s also a volunteer firefighter. He’s been one for over 40 years. More than just a volunteer, he’s been instrumental along with other firefighters in bringing much needed funding to the Farber Volunteer Fire Department for trucks and equipment.

“It’s funny when we go over to the fire station to do a fundraiser,” he says. “You’ll see everyone’s grandkids or kids help and we’ve become a family like that.”

From his Main Street shop, Williams has watched the town grow and shrink and all phases in between. He remembers when Vandalia was much busier downtown when it had two brick plants, four new car dealers and two garment factories. Yes, he confirms, parking really was a problem at one time.

As far as cutting hair, Williams says the peak years were probably the 1990s.

“The 90s were really good because short hair had come back and very few knew how to cut a flat top or a high round–they call them high and tights now, but they used to be called high rounds. Military style. But it was the decade of the clipper, and if you were good with clippers, people sought you out.”

He’s seen all the fads come and go, and sometimes come again, including mohawks and mullets.

“There’s a little boy who would come in and ask for one, and I said, ‘What would your mother say?’ ‘Mom says it’s all right. “Yep, you can have it.’ Oh, he was so tickled when he got his mohawk.”

A bigger fad was the mullet, which Williams calls Achy Breaky haircuts.

“We were out at the fair one year, and Billy Ray Cyrus, ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ I loved that song, but I never got so tired of it because that’s all you heard,” Williams recalls. “And women would bring their little boys in. It didn’t matter if he was tall, short, big, skinny–they wanted him to look like Billy Ray Cyrus. Some of them call them Billy Rays and Joe Dirts. They’d say, ‘I want to look like Joe Dirt. Some people, really, they don’t look bad with them.”

Having first sharpened his clippers in the late 60s and early 70s has helped Williams adapt as hair styles changed over the years and then made comebacks.

“That helped me in later years because a lot of people didn’t know how to cut crew cuts,” he said. “There’s an art to it. Some people never get it. I was lucky to have someone who was patient and got me on to the flat top, the crew cut, the Hollywood. It was called the “flat top boogie.”

It’s been quite an adventure for Williams since completing barber college in St. Louis in 1969 and getting his start at Tex Norfleet’s shop in Mexico nearly 52 years ago.

Williams says he’s barbered for so long because he likes people.

“I’ve learned we’re all insignificant, per se, but it’s the people we touch,” he says. “That’s the big thing. I like people. I really like people. And I know some people don’t want to be around people, but I sort of feed off of other people.”

Although there are many hair stylists in town, Williams has the distinction of owning the only traditional barbershop in this part of the county–otherwise known as the “Vandalia Barber Shop Institute of Higher Learning,” as Williams likes to joke.

“It seems like I’ve educated a lot of people–right, wrong or otherwise,” Williams muses. “A lot of them call me professor. Over the years a lot of young men have asked me questions, sometimes embarrassing questions, and they know I will not repeat it like that. I try to answer them, explain it to them. I try to be a mentor.”