71 years later, Ray Bradford is still cutting hair

Waiting for his next customer, Ray Bradford relaxed in the barber chair, watching the fog drift by the large shop window and enjoying the cozy warmth of the electric heater near his feet.

It had been a slow morning at the Salisbury shop, and Bradford, 88, was content to rest a bit. By noon, he would close-up and head home.

His second home could be the shop. He’s been working at the Shores & Bradford Barber Shop, on Priscilla Street, since 1964. In those days he worked five days a week, but now he comes in for just five hours each Saturday.

His vintage “chair” is where it’s always been, along a wall with a large mirror, plenty of clippers, well-worn scissors, razors and bits and pieces of barber history.

On the wall is a small, framed license, the very one he got when he went into business on Oct.15, 1947.

It could be just an old document, but this license is special, indeed. It’s proof that Bradford is not only the oldest barber in the state, he’s also the one with the most years still clipping and snipping.

Last year, he reached the historic 70-year-milestone of his career. He figures he’s easily done more than 150,000 haircuts. Now he’s cutting into his 71st year.

As he nears 90, he isn’t sure just when he will retire. He knows he won’t cut hair as long as his father, John, did. With folks hopping from job to job these days, it’s almost unbelievable that John Bradford cut hair for almost 80 years.

And there begins a barbershop tale.

“My dad was 94 when he died in 1980. He was a farmer and worked at a small sawmill around Willards. Dad had to work, he had to support nine kids. Cut hair on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Dad would cut hair in the kitchen, that’s where we had linoleum down. Men sat in an old oak kitchen chair. We had a few coal oil lamps until electricity came in 1938, so he was all ‘hand-powered’ clippers.. Men would sit there talkin’ waitin’ to be next. We had a hand pump outside and a two-hole outhouse. So if they had to go, they went outside like everybody else.

The home barber kept a tea kettle of hot water going on a wood stove shaped like a tin box, Bradford explained, which his father used when shaving customers.

“He stopped cutting in his upper 80s. He was born in 1886, and started cutting hair when he was 14. So yes, I guess he was cutting hair of Civil War veterans.

“He was still cutting in his late 80s. There were four or five old men around the Willards neighborhood then and they didn’t have a lot of hair, and were livin’ on Social Security, so he give ’em a free haircut once every two month. Usin’ hand clippers to the end.

“He cut my hair and I cut his. Cut his hair on a Friday and he died on a Sunday,” Bradford recalled.

Like his father before him, Ray Bradford, 88, relied on his barbering skills to raise a family. Bradford, now recognized as the oldest barber in the state, is shown with sons Michael, left, Mitchell, and his wife, and their mother, Jean.

Barber school

“When I wanted to learn to cut hair, I asked my father to teach me, but he said ‘No. If you want to cut hair you got to barber school.’ He watched me cut hair as I came along. Said, ‘Son, you do it different than I do, but the results are pretty good.’ ”

In barber school with Bradford was Willard’s friend, Bob Davis. Davis and Bradford opened a shop in Willards in fall 1947.

“Shortly afterwards a scout for the Boston Braves baseball team offered me a $2,000 signing bonus if I joined them as a pitcher,” Bradford said. “That’s how I paid for my part of the shop. I cut hair in the winter and played baseball in the summer of 1950.”

By then Bob Davis had sold the shop to their mutual, older Willard’s friend Zeke Savage. Bradford worked with him from September through Christmas. “I was also playing full time baseball and being paid a salary — $175 a month.”

“I got my master’s license in December 1950 and in January Bob’s father, Zeke, wanted his son, and my friend, Bob. to start cutting hair. He put Bobby right up beside him so he could teach him. Bob didn’t go to barber school.”

It doesn’t even sound probable, much less possible, but “little Bobby Savage” was 13-years-old when he started cutting hair.

“Zeke got me a job in Berlin with his friend Walter Bishop,” Bradford said.

Then, on March 15, 1951, two days before spring training, his baseball career ended.

That day Pittsville High School shop teacher and principal, Gordon Dennett, asked Bradford to help him joint (plane) boards. Bradford ran boards through and one “broke in two.” His right hand fingers met the blade, losing almost half of his index and middle fingers.

“He and I were good friends,” he recalled. “He had four kids in school to worry about and a wife, and I didn’t have any, I wasn’t married. I didn’t ask him for a penny. I paid my own doctor and hospital bills.”

Uncle Sam wanted him in the military, and doctor’s examined his right hand. They deferred drafting him for one year.

When his fingers healed he was back cutting hair with Bishop.

“I cut in Berlin that year of deferment. From 8 in the morning until 9:30 at night, five days a week we were so busy cutting hair. And there was a lot of shaving in it, too. For years and years I was averaging 12 to 14 haircuts a day. Haircuts were 50 cents, 35 cents for a shave.”

Eleven months later he signed up with the Air Force for four years as a gunsmith.

“When I went to basic training I had my barber tools with me. The guy in charge held on to them, but when we went through drill competition, every one of us needed a haircut, so I got my tool and cut 71 head of hair from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

“Not a complete hair cut, but around their ears and off their collars, flip, flip and out you went. I was the only one who didn’t get a haircut.

“I made more money cutting hair in the barracks then the Air Force paid — $78 a month. But I made more money cutting hair in the barracks.

Leaving the military he went back to his barbering job in Berlin — for one day. So much had changed in four years.

“Berlin had nothing left. I was there from 8 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. and was renting the chair for $5 a day. I cut four head of hair for a $1 apiece. And I had to eat two meals. Didn’t take me long to figure out I was makin’ no money, so I came to Salisbury to work with Bob Davis in 1956. I rented a chair for $15 a week.”

By then haircuts were 75 cents.

Davis sold the shop in 1962 and four months later Bradford joined Merrill Shores in his shop on Church Street. Bob Savage joined them in 1963 and, in1964, the trio moved to the shop’s current Priscilla Street location. Shores died in 1968.

To encourage patrons not to crowd the shop on weekends, Bradford and Savage initiated an incentive. The $1.25 cut rate would be increased to $1.50 Fridays and Saturdays.

“I was the owner of the business, not the building. For all these years I rented,” he said.

Savage retired in 2010, the year Janie Jones came as the third female barber. The two men had worked together 53 years.

She purchased the business on June 1, 2012. It was a special day for Bradford. He had owned the business for 50 years — June 1, 1962.

For a few years it was just Jones and Bradford cutting hair. Then Bradford opted for a Saturdays-only schedule.

Bradford knew he wanted to retire someday.

As fate would have it, a blessing walked through the door.

Noah Brittingham, 18, of Pocomoke City, told Jones he wanted to be a barber. He needs 2,250 hours of apprentice work before he can take two required Maryland State Board of Barber’s tests and get his license. So now, four days a week, the teen-ager is working with Jones to meet his goals.

Jones gave a few technique cutting tips to apprentice Noah Brittingham as he worked on a shop client James Stephenson, of Salisbury, while Bradford talked about the “old days,” of working in the trade.

The seasoned barber watched as the teenager trimmed hair, mentioning to the apprentice the days when barbers used hand-powered clippers and sharp scissors to work hair magic.

Bradford uses power clippers to remove the bulk of the hair, but the artistry of the scissors and comb, as its always been, is what crafts the final piece-de-resistance of his cut.

It was a special conversation, as Bradford is probably the last of the last old school barbers and surely the last with 70-plus years standing for hours a day clipping hair. It’s doubtful if Brittingham will ever meet anyone with the Bradford’s history. And it’s almost a given there probably won’t be another barber in our ever-changing world reaching the 70-year milestone in the business.

“He might be young,” said of the apprentice, “but I’ll tell ya, I’ve never seen anyone come along as good as he has in the amount of time he’s been cutting hair.

In an odd bit of coincidence, the “high and tight” haircut style that was the rage when Bradford started cutting hair 70 years ago is now the style in demand by the younger set.

“Years back we went through the ‘bowl’ haircut fad, got on the startin’ of the flat-top haircuts around 1950, the Chicago flat top (flat top on the top and sides combed back, really two haircuts put together). We didn’t do a whole lot of hair cuttin’ for a while when the Beatle haircut came around,” he mused.

Bradford turns 89 in September. He hopes Brittingham will stay with Jones in the shop when he gets his license. Then, Bradford said he would like to fade from the barber business and spend more time with his wife of 64 years, now in a nursing home.

“I would hate to walk out of here knowing one day this is my last haircut, because it’s been good to me,” Bradford said with a quiver in his voice.

“But I want to drop out of hair cutting soon. As I told somebody recently ‘I’ve had a good life, a good wife and a lot of good friends.’ What else do you need?”

Barbers Ray Bradford, standing, and Bob Savage worked together for 53 years before Savage retired in 2010. Savage still comes to the Shores and Bradford Barbershop on Priscilla Street in Salisbury to get his hair cut. The two were childhood friends in Willards.

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.
Facebook Comment