Stepping into Kurt Matthew Wheeler’s Barbershop, in Lovell, is a little bit like stepping back in time.
It’s not just the old photographs and oil paintings on the wall, that Wheeler loves to collect, and the old-fashioned Avon shaving jars customers bring in. Nor is it just the old-fashioned secretary and marble-topped cabinets that came with the shop.
It’s Wheeler himself, dressed in a fancy vest and tie, that seems to recall a bygone era, one where manners were equally important as attire.
“I’ve come in when I don’t usually work if someone has a funeral,” Wheeler told Cowboy State Daily. “That’s understandable, that really is an emergency haircut. Or a wedding the next day, and, you know, the little boy clipped his hair and everything. I really want to get everyone in that I can and make them feel better about themselves. That’s my goal. Make them feel good. And keep the feel of an old-time barbershop.”
One reason Wheeler feels so strongly about that is the knowledge that he works in what is Wyoming’s oldest continuously-operating barbershop.
The shop at 218 Main Street in Lovell dates back at least 100 years, Wheeler said, and may be even older than that. He’s found a photograph with the date 1898 on its back, which he believes is the first barbershop in that location.
“So I don’t know if that’s exactly the right date or not, you know, who knows with these old photos,” Wheeler said. “But the shop has definitely been around a long time.”
Funny Stories From The Past
Old-timers often bringing Wheeler cool artifacts and curiosities from history for the barber shop, or tell him little stories about the location’s history.
Among the stories is that of Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd, two gangsters from the Prohibition era who came to get haircuts back in the 1930s.
“(The old-timers) saw him pull up in a car and (Kelly) had the Tommy gun on his lap,” Wheeler told Cowboy State Daily. “He stood up, came in and got a haircut and then left.”
Wheeler has placed pictures of the two gangsters on his wall, along with a Tommy gun, to recognize that particular piece of history.
No shots were fired that time at the barbershop, but there’s another tale Wheeler’s learned of, where shots were fired.
On that day, according to the journal of a genealogist visiting Lovell to find the location of her ancestor’s barbershop, a gentleman was getting a shave when a cowboy walked through the door and said,’ Fred, could you step aside for a moment?”
The barber, Fred, did and then the gentleman pulled out a revolver and shot the guy in the chair who was getting a haircut.
According to the journal, he then walked out the door as if nothing unusual had occurred.
“It was nice that he was, you know, polite enough to still tell the barber to step aside,” Wheeler said, chuckling a little.
The Utah genealogist left a picture and an advertisement for Wheeler to display in the barbershop in return fora few of the oil paintings and photographs that he collects to display.
A Barber Is Born
Wheeler so far hasn’t had any gangsters show up for a haircut, or cowboys with revolvers shooting customers.
But his entry into the barbershop profession is another matter. That was the result of the catastrophic 2008 recession.
“My company told me, well you can take a company buyout or we could transfer you anywhere in the country,” Wheeler recalled. “And I really wanted to stay in the Montana-Wyoming area. So I took the buyout and it was for $3,000 toward school and then a year of free health care.”
Wheeler, who is originally from Laurel, Montana, settled on barbershop classes. He figured he could use that to work his way through college for a new degree.
“But I liked it so much, and Lovell needed a barber, so it has worked out really well,” he said.
During barber school, he also met his wife, a school teacher in Gardiner, Montana. After about a year in Gardiner, the couple heard about the barbershop in Lovell, and decided to make a move.
“The guy wanted to retire,” Wheeler recalled. “So, in roughly 2012, I started here.”
Today Wheeler has customers coming to his shop from far and wide.
“I’ve had people come from Billings,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “They’ll wait, you know, a month or two then make the trip over here and go to Queen Bee (Gardens, a candy shop) and then drive back.”
He also has regulars from Laurel, Montana, and nearby Wyoming towns like Powell, Greybull, and Cody, as well as other towns.
Among his Cody regulars is Kyle Swander.
“I’m a retired marine who got haircuts weekly for more than 21 years, and I can tell you that he is awesome,” Swander told Cowboy State Daily.
While Swander no longer gets weekly haircuts, he still likes to get them often. But he will wait two weeks or more if he has to, just to come to Kurt’s Cuts.
“A lot of barbers, you end up having to point out, OK, you missed something here,” he said. “You got to get a little bit more there. But you don’t have to check things here. And that’s saying something in this day and age.”
Wheeler said business has been good enough that at some point he could foresee needing another person in the shop, so that he can continue to offer good, old-fashioned service, including the hot towel shaves.
Those take a lengthy, 45 minutes to do right, he said, and at Kurt’s Cuts doing things right — the old-fashioned way — is always a priority.
“I’ve met an array of people here who have amazing stories,” Wheeler said. “And that’s the best experience of being a barber. It’s meeting people. This is a good place to relax if people want to get a haircut, or just look around, that’s great, too. Or if they want to just sit down and need a visit, you know, I’m more than happy to do that as well.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.