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Longtime Indian Springs barber says he's retiring

September 03, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

View the barbershow slideshow.

INDIAN SPRINGS -- Lewis "Buzz" Mills didn't set out to become a barber.

Fresh out of the Army after World War II, he enrolled in barber school in 1949 because work was scarce and the government was offering veterans a $20-a-week stipend for up to a year of vocational training. And when a storekeeper approached him six years later about taking over a retiring barber's shop in Big Pool, Mills was less than enthusiastic.

"I told him, 'No. 1, I don't have the money to buy the shop, and No. 2, I don't want to be a barber,'" Mills said.

A half-century later, the question is whether Mills will ever want to quit.

Mills, 81, has been cutting hair for 53 years, about 47 of them in the same tiny shack that he built next door to the Indian Springs General Store with some friends in the early 1960s. Mills said he might continue cutting there for years more, were it not for his family's urging for him to slow down - and the small problem that the shop is collapsing into a creek that has eroded the ground beneath it.

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The longtime Indian Springs barber has been mulling an October retirement, but his customers are skeptical.

"He's not retiring," scoffed Mills' longtime customer, friend and hunting buddy Lucas Smith, 77, of Indian Springs. "What will we do for a barber?"

Like many of Mills' customers, Smith can't remember having his hair cut by anyone else. He climbs into the familiar seat of the antique wooden barber's chair in the center of the room and Mills begins snipping without a word exchanged about the desired style.

"I've cut these people's hair so long that if it was possible to cut a head of hair with your eyes shut, I could almost do it, because I know exactly what they want," Mills said.

Nestled in the trees off U.S. 40, Mills' 12-foot-by-14-foot shop could be mistaken for a storage shed. The only indications of its purpose are the hours posted by the door and the clear tube of a barber's pole that has lost its stripes.

At the center of the shop sits a chair made of oak that is at least 103 years old and was inherited from a barber who used it for 50 years before Mills. Six pairs of antlers hang on the wall, along with assorted photos, a dog-eared Farmer's Almanac and a sign that reads "Haircut $5."

That's an accurate price. Mills said, at his age, he doesn't need to charge any more than $5.

Mills' low price might be one of the shop's attractions, but for Daniel Weaver, 38, of Hagerstown, the shop's real treasure is its ambiance.

"It's like a walk back in time," said Weaver, who grew up getting his hair cut by Mills and loved to soak up the barber's stories about hunting raccoons at night. Weaver lives in Hagerstown and works in Washington D.C., but he returns to the Indian Springs shop to retreat from life's hectic pace.

"It's just a piece of local lore that's going to be shutting down," Weaver said. "I'll certainly miss it."

When Mills told general store owner Daniel Webster Martin in the 1950s that he didn't have the money to buy the retiring Big Pool barber's business, Martin offered to lend him the money. Mills, seeking some extra income and job security, accepted.

During those years, Mills lived near Cearfoss, worked at Fairchild during the day and ran the Big Pool barber shop from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.

"I'll never forget the first full week I was there," Mills said. The former barber charged 50 cents a head, but to help afford the commute, Mills raised the price to 75 cents his first week.

"A guy came in to get his hair cut, I cut his hair and when I was through he said, 'What do I owe you?'" Mills said. "I said, '75 cents.' He said, 'Huh! That young whippersnapper must figure on getting rich real quick.'"

Mills has worked different day jobs, but he always returned to the barber shop in the evenings. Today, he runs a yard work business with his great-great-granddaughter's husband and cuts hair from 4 to 8 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

His daughter, Nancy Melton of Boonsboro, said she encouraged Mills to limit his focus to either the yard work or the barber shop.

"It's very difficult for him to do both," Melton said. "I see it causing a lot of health problems for him when he works."

His commitment to helping his great-great-grandson-in-law get established, coupled with the cost of heating the shop and its bad state of repair, led Mills to choose to give up cutting hair.

"I think it's a big challenge for him to close the shop," Melton said. "The barber shop has been so important to him over these 50 years."

It is the place where Mills catches up with all of his many friends, something that has been especially important since his wife of 62 years died in April, Melton said.

Going without Mills will not be easy for his customers. When Mills had to take time off to have heart bypass surgery and to have his gall bladder removed, many of his customers simply let their hair grow rather than get it cut by someone else.

"They said, 'You're the only one that cuts my hair the way I like it and I wasn't going nowhere else,'" Mills said.

Mills considered keeping the shop open one day a week, but he decided against it, Melton said.

Some customers are holding out hope that he will change his mind.

"They'll carry him out of here feet first," Smith said. "You wait and see."


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