If These Walls Could Talk: Rohrbach's Barber Shop

Grenz, Anderson, and Straub. "If These Walls Could Talk: Rohrbach's Barber Shop." Northwest Blade, 5 April 2012.

Men like to socialize as much as women and barbershops have always been the place to go. Visiting the barbershop was a weekly and sometimes daily habit. Men would stop not only for a haircut or shave, but also to talk with friends and chew the fat. The building known as the Rohrbach Barber Shop has been such a place for almost 100 years.

The earliest business here was that of the Ed. Dickman Tin Shop, according to the circa-1900 plat map in the 1937 Eureka History Book. A 1911 Eureka map lists lot 9, block 1 of the original plat of Eureka as having a jewelry store on it. The building was constructed in 1900 of the same decorative cement block used to build several other structures in Eureka during that same time period, including Kennedy Implement and the Northwest Blade buildings. Prior to that, photographs show a wooden building in this location.

Eureka's first school principal was Dyer B. Strait, from the fall of 1892 to the spring of 1894. In addition to being an educator, Strait enjoyed repairing watches and selling jewelry. An 1899 Jeweler's Review mentions D.B. Strait of Eureka, SD on a jewelry buying trip in the Twin Cities.
Another jeweler's circular dated June 6, 1917, said that former Eurekan, D.B. Strait, was moving to Seattle. It is not known when Strait actually left Eureka.

The edifice known as the Strait building became a barbershop in 1916 when purchased by Jacob D. Harr. This man has one of the most interesting family histories this author has encountered. Jacob was born in Russia in 1886.

As a four year old, his family left Russia, arriving in Brazil where Jacob's brother, Nathanial, was born in 1890. While in Brazil, the mother and two of seven children contracted malaria and died. These two brothers, their father and three siblings returned to Russia until 1906, when they immigrated to South Dakota.

Working briefly at the Eureka Roller Mill, J.D. Harr dreamed of owning a business, so in 1912 he began an apprenticeship under barber William Davis.

J.D.'s brother, Nathaniel D. Harr, worked with J.D. from 1918-1925 in the former Strait building. For the period from 1925-1928, Nath D. operated the barber shop alone. Nathaniel, father of Eureka's Dianna Cooper and Elial Harr, decided to start his own shop in the original wooden Northwest German Farmers Mutual Insurance Company building. Nathanial Harr named it the Ideal Barbershop and ran it at this location from 1928-1930. At that time, J.D. resumed barbering in his barbershop on Main Street.

The barber shop had two barber chairs and a red, white and blue striped barber pole. The striped pole was an age old indicator that a barber was located in the building. Barbers originally did teeth extraction and surgery along with barbering. The surgery involved leeches for bloodletting. The pole usually had two basins; one held the leeches and one caught the blood. Now the pole is merely a symbol of its grisly past.

J.D. Harr thought women became more confident and started cutting their long hair after receiving the right to vote, following the ratification of the 19th amendment in June 1920. He was at a loss when his first woman customer asked him for a haircut. He consented to the request and reportedly both were happy with the results. But, after shearing the waist length locks of another female customer, Harr was dismayed to see the tears she was shedding.

In the 1930s, when headset radios were scarce, the barber shop was the center for Eureka's sports fans, especially during the World Series games.

One person listened to the game, while moving cardboard figures of the players on a bulletin board designed to look like the baseball diamond. The barber shop was the place to be, to keep up with all broadcasted sporting events.

The 1937 Eureka Jubilee Book ad for the J.D. Harr shop states "greetings and welcome, pioneers, call at our barber shop while you are attending the jubilee. The prices and service are right."

The Eureka Cardinal Baseball Team in the late 1940s, consisting of many former veterans, was unstoppable and presented Eureka with victories, championships and awards. The barbershop, courtesy of J.D. Harr, was open on Sundays so the players could shower after games. This practice continued for several years until the showers were built at the Eureka baseball park.

Harr would also open the shop so the young players could conduct meetings.

Jack Jones, after fighting in the European Theater of WW II, attended Moles Barber School in Fargo, ND. He became Harr's apprentice in 1950. After J.D.'s retirement, Jones rented the building and bought the equipment, operating the barber shop from December 1950 to November 1961.

Jones' apprentice, Marvin Rohrbach, also a graduate of Moles Barber School, purchased the inventory and equipment from Jones in 1961. The 1960s and 1970s saw longer hair styles, resulting in less business. The second barber chair, not used since the early 1970s, was removed and placed in the Senior Center home. Rohrbach's last apprentice was Ben Hummel in 1969.

The upstairs apartment was the living quarters for the Harr family until Rohrbach bought the building in 1964 from J.D.'s widow, Cecelia. Rohrbach rented out the apartment to widows, young single men, and construction workers. The death of Marvin's wife, Deloris, in 1995, saw Marvin renovating the apartment and making it his home.

Barber Marvin Rohrbach has worked in this building for 51 years. He has observed many trends. Marvin believes that hairstyles tend to repeat although there may be a 50 year interlude. Prices have changed from $1.10 for a haircut in 1963 to $10 today. When Marvin started his business, two barbers would be busy from opening until closing six days a week. Today he averages between 20 and 25 haircuts a week. Rohrbach said shoe shine boys became unnecessary when shoe styles changed from leather to cloth.

If these walls could talk we would hear, "Barbershops are homey and inviting. A unique aroma fills the air which becomes ingrained in every nook and cranny of the shop. The moment a man steps inside, he relaxes; and when he sits in the barber chair his troubles melt away or at least he can pour them out to his friend, the barber."

The two-story block building constructed in 1900 by D.B. Strait. Photo taken in 1912 when Straubs was built next door. From Margaret Straub Wolf.
Rohrbach Barber Shop, in this location since 1961.

Story courtesy of the Northwest Blade, Eureka, SD.
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