A cut Above the Rest

Knutson, Jonathan. "A cut Above the Rest." Forum, 21 October 2000, sec. 1B.

North Dakota's youngest barber Jeremy Mehlhoff, 19, gives a haircut to customer Ed Pewe in Ashley, ND.

ASHLEY, N.D. -The shop is small, dim and quiet. There are two barber chairs (one is never used), some magazines, a few decorative old-time barbering tools on the walls. There are no cell phones or high-tech gadgets, none of the hustle and bustle of modern-day life.

Jeremy Mehlhoff, between customers, sits in one of the chairs and is at ease - at peace, even - with the unhurried world around him.

"I lived in Fargo and it was all rush - rush. I like this better. This is the kind of life for me," he says.

Mehlhoff, 19, is North Dakota's youngest barber. For the past few months he's been apprenticing at Bendewald Barber Shop here. He'll complete his apprentice next year and become the shop's proprietor.

"I like it here and I'm getting enough customers to pay the bills. That’s pretty good, I think," he says.

Why pick barbering as a career?

Mehlohoff says he enjoys working with people and was inspired by a relative who barbered professionally.

And why Ashley? Why not set up shop in a big city and soak up the bright lights there?

He laughs. "I grew up in a real small town, Tuttle, N.D. (population about 150). I just like the lifestyle in a smaller town. It's slower, friendlier-and it's easier to get to know people."

The 1999 high school graduate got a taste of urban life while studying at Moler Barber College in Fargo. He says he enjoyed his 10 months of barber training, which ended this spring, and made many friends in Fargo, but realized small town life suits him best.

Ashley, 180 miles southwest of Fargo-Moorhead, fits the bill. Primarily a farming and ranching town, it has about 1,000 residents.

Just as importantly, it had a veteran barber who wanted to sell his practice.

"I'd been hoping to locate someone who'd take it over, and we were so excited to find Jeremy," says Reinie Bendewald, 76, who has barbered in Ashley for 50 years.

The plan is for Mehlhoff to buy the shop next year after he completes his apprenticeship.

Bendewald says Mehlhoff is doing just fine.

"He's very good with people and is fitting in well. The community has always supported me, and I'm sure it will support him, too," Bendewald says.

One important piece of advice Bendewald gave Mehlhoff: "There will be good days. There will be bad days, too, when you don’t get many customers. You need a lot of patience on those slow days."

Mehlhoff has taken that advice to heart. On slow days he sits in one of the barber chairs, waits patiently (virtually all of his customers are walk-ins) and reads magazines, mostly ones about the outdoors.

"I've done more reading here than I ever did in high school," he says.

Mehlhoff is part of a generational changing of the guard on Ashley's Main Street.

Many of the town's businesses are now managed or owned by young people, which Mehlhoff and Bendewald say are bodes well for the town's future.

Mehlhoff says his age and youthful appearance aren't a big deal to most customers.

"A few people might be a little nervous at first, but they seem to accept me," he says

He just laughs about the female customer who refused to let him near her hair while he was studying at Moler Barber College. Students at the school give low-priced haircuts to the public.

"She thought I was some 12 year old kid who’d gotten hold of the scissors," he says.

Most of Mehlhoff’s customers in Ashley are men. He hopes that more women will begin patronizing his shop.

Cutting hair for a living takes more than just knowing how to use a scissors. It also requires the ability to schmooze a little with customers.

"You want to make people feel welcome, help them be comfortable," he says.

Mehloff is plenty comfortable in Ashley. He enjoys bowling (Ashley has it’s own lanes) and loves to hunt in nearby fields and pastures. He'll be taking a rare day off from work on Nov. 10, the opening day of North Dakota's deer hunting season.

Besides being the youngest barber in North Dakota, Mehlhoff just might be one of the happiest, too.
"I really like the way my life is working out," he says. "Living in Ashley. Being a barber. I wouldn't want anything different."

Mehlhoff tidies up after a haircut, folding the apron he puts over his customers.
Mehlhoff, despite his youthful appearance, says he has been well accepted in Ashley. Here he works on customer Ed Pewe's Hair

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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