He’s 83 years old, and he’s part of THAT generation. He knows how to work, and would be offended if someone suggested that it was time for him to sit in a rocking chair and let someone else take care of him. In short, William Kirkland of Gustine, Texas is a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what this country was founded upon and the strength that kept it strong for centuries.
William was born in 1931 in the Gentry’s Mill Community of Hamilton County, Texas, a time when the local doctor still made house calls, even if it meant delivering a new baby in the home of Zeb and Julia Pierson Kirkland. Julia’s parents were from Norway and first generation to this country.
“Grandpa came when he was a baby, and he didn’t know Norwegian. Grandmother did, but he didn’t like her to speak it, but when she got with her siblings they all spoke Norwegian together.”
And all but one of Julia’s aunts and uncles finally made it to this country as one by one they came and then earned enough money to send for the next one. Her mother was 17 when she arrived in Clifton, Texas, and her siblings helped her get a job as live in help for the Cunningham family who lived in what I would consider the one true “mansion” in Comanche, Texas, located where today stands the home of Mary (Mrs. Bill) Clemons.
Of course, by the time her grandson, William, knew her, she was just his grandmother married to his grandfather and they lived very close together in Hamilton County, Texas.
“A train would come between our house and grandmother Kirkland’s (the other grandmother), going on the Cotton Belt Railroad from McGregor to Comanche one day and then back to McGregor the next.”
William Kirkland started school in Gentry’s Mill, where he attended for the next 5 years.
“That’s all they taught at Gentry’s Mill so I had to go to Hamilton after that. I graduated in 1949. (May 3, 2014, will be their 65-year class reunion.) Everyone knew that all the pretty girls were in Gustine so that’s where I headed. Sure enough, that’s where I found Betty.”
Betty Patton has now worn the name Kirkland for 61 years.
“After I got out of the army, I worked for Higginbotham’s in Gustine, and then we had the twins. We moved to Fort Worth, and I went to work for General Dynamics until I was laid off. We came back to Gustine, and then I went to barber school in Fort Worth.”
Betty and the girls, who by this time were 4, stayed behind while William was gone, and Betty worked in the general office of Higginbotham’s in Comanche. William was gone for 6 months. I asked him why barber school?
“I got talked into that by Harold Adcock because there were seven from Comanche who were going to school there at that time. None of the rest stayed barbering very long. I got so poor I couldn’t get out,” he joked.
Of course, I wanted to know what it was like being a barber back then as well as how things have changed today.
“When I started, there were eleven barbers right here on the square in at least five shops that I can remember. Back then, when you got out of barber school, you were an apprentice barber and had to work two years under a master barber. Then, you could go back and take another test and go out on your own as a master barber.
“My first rent was $60.00 a month ($30.00 his part) and I made 70 cents out of the dollar we charged for a haircut.”
William started out on the south side; he was a barber there from 1960-1972. His shop where we sit on the north side today was back then the barber shop of Joe Marshall (Charlie’s dad and Sammy’s granddad).
“This building has been nothing but a barber shop for 80-90 years. I’ve been in it since 1972.”
“Barbering has changed. The population of Comanche is basically the same as it’s always been, but it’s the older people who now come to the barber shop. Most of your teens think they have to go to the beauty shop,” the octogenarian grinned a bit wickedly.
Of course, the fact that he had just cut the hair of both a 4 and a 2 year old didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’ve been cutting some people ever since I started, two and three generations on a lot of them. These boys didn’t cry, but they sure did wiggle. They used to cry, but now they just wiggle. I’ve been cutting their hair all their lives.
“I enjoy coming to work; I’d be bored to death if I didn’t have something to do. I farm and ranch, of course, and Betty goes with me to do that, but I love the barber shop too.”
Kirkland’s Barber Shop opens at 8:00 a.m. and now closes for lunch although that did not used to be the case.
“No more skipping lunch for me, and I close at 5:00 p.m. unless I need to work later to get everyone finished. I work half a day on Saturdays, but I don’t open on Mondays.”
William Kirkland will look at you like you’re a fool if you ask him if he has plans to retire so I skipped right over that one and instead asked him how the town of Comanche has changed over the years.
“Saturday used to be a busy thing, all day long. You couldn’t even find a parking place on the square, and businesses stayed open until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Now, after dinner on Saturday everyone is gone. I used to work from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and until 9:30 p.m. on Saturday nights. I’d finally just have to shut the doors because I always had a houseful.”
Betty interrupted at this point. “I hated Saturdays back then. I’d already have the kids bathed and ready for bed by the time he would get home on Saturday nights!” Having a husband who once worked very late hours, I understood exactly how she felt!
William continued his story. “Back then people didn’t come to town during week. They came to town on Saturday and bought their groceries; there were grocery stores all around the square. Today, people don’t think anything of driving a 100 miles just to have a meal!
“Cuts had just gone up from 75 cents to a dollar when I started. Every few years we’d go up 25 cents, and people would gripe and threaten to quit us and everything else. Today a haircut is $10.00, the same price it’s been for the past 10 years….since July 4, 2005.
“I used to give lots of shaves as well, but I haven’t done that since my heart surgery in 2003. In this day and age, the only people who want shaves are those who can’t shave themselves, and that is just too hard for me to do since the surgery.”
It was at this point, while William was making sure that he was right on the date when his haircuts jumped to $10.00, that I paused to look out of the large plate glass window that graces the front of his shop, realizing that the man had looked out of it literally thousands of times since 1972. When I asked him to paint for me the things he had seen over the years, he first went back to his south side barbershop.
“Moving was the wisest thing I ever did. I was always afraid someone would get run over on the south side. The parking here on the north made me feel better about that.
“Back in the 60s, every time they had county court you would see a deputy making the rounds. He’d come in all the barbershops and pick jurors out of the shop until he had enough men to fill a jury. Sometimes he’d have to go into other businesses as well. He’d ignore the ones who were spitting and whittling, sitting on the benches, because he wanted working people for jurors. Sometimes he’d even get the barbers if you didn’t have your scissors in your hand when he came in!
“There wasn’t much traffic coming through town then, not like there is now, and all the buildings were full of businesses.”
“You used to have to go to several stores just to check out the shoes before deciding on a pair,” Betty added.
“We didn’t have a radio station, and every time there was a funeral, Mr. Wilkerson would walk around the square and deliver funeral notices that he had printed. Every place of business would put them up, and the people would remember to tell others. That was the only way we had of knowing when the funeral would be and the way the word was spread that someone had died.
“Back then, we still had cafes on or near the square. There was the Owl Drug, Durham’s Drug, and Service Drug as well as Jack and Marie Morgan’s café on the square. Or you could walk a block to Vesta’s (Aunt Vesta’s) where she served a family style lunch. That big old house was located between Prosperty Bank and the Post Office (police station today).”
And then we all had a good laugh. “Vesta was a great cook, and she was heavy. People would always ask her if her pie was fattening. She’d answer, ‘Lord, no, I eat it all the time!’”
Of all haircuts that William has given, two stand out the most because two different men at two different times actually passed out during their cuts.
“I thought they were dead,” William remembered. “We called the ambulance for both of them, and each time it got here the men woke up and refused to go!”
Today, one of the most interesting customers to frequent the barbershop is a diamond dealer from Jerusalem.
Of course, I already knew what the answer would be when I asked him the worst thing his window had seen.
“The murder of Ted Durham. The town was ready to hang somebody over what they did to Ted,” William and Betty remembered together.
“If you could turn the clock back and go back, would you do it all again?” I asked.
There was not even a second’s hesitation in the voice of the barber who has now seen over 80 years come and go.
And because he is from THAT generation, or maybe just because he understands how the world is supposed to work, today William Kirkland gives a lot of free haircuts both to relatives and people who find themselves “down on their luck,” as he puts it.
And William, Betty, and I closed our evening together by trying to see how many of the old businesses around the Comanche square we could remember. Here’s what we came up with, and I’m sure we’ve made some mistakes because these were done completely from memory without even looking at the buildings.
South Side, Left to Right
1. Owl Drug
2. Morgans Café (Jack Morgan delivered picked up freight at the depot and delivered it around town.)
3. Virgil Norris Insurance
4. the barber shop
5. the building where Shaw’s Barber Shop is now
6. the bank (today’s City Hall)
7. Orie Edmondson’s Western Wear
8. Bill Dudney’s The Hub
11. Comanche National Bank.
West Side, Left to Right
2. Massingill’s Barber Shop
3. Durham Drug
4. Western Auto
5. Barrick’s Jewelry
7. Service Drug
North Side, Left to Right
1. Vineyard’s Grocery
2. Hathcock’s (and above him was Farm Bureau, where Betty worked three days a week for $5.00 a day after she graduated. Jean Rachels worked the other two days.)
3. the barber shop
4. Wright’s Jewelry Repair
5. Ben Everidge’s Fabrics
7. McCullough and Jeane’s
8. Durham’s Cleaners
East Side, Left to Right
We bogged down A LOT on east side. We do remember that the A&P Grocery was where Citibank is today. Then on to the east:
1. dry goods store, I think Lerner’s. We know Carl’s Auto was on that side, maybe in the Knights of Pythias building, and Jones’ Cleaners was somewhere in middle of the block. And Baxter’s was a mercantile-like business on the very end of the block. And that was the best we could do on the east side.
We even discussed the present day location of Texas Bank because in that area was a shopping strip that included Sut Dudley’s Drug Store, a service station, and a couple of other businesses. Somewhere in there was also Dr. James Slider’s first optometry office.
And then it was time for all of us to “get to the house!”