STETTLER — For more than 60 years, Vern Dempsey has been “taking a little off the top” of generations of customers.
And remarkably, the barber has been wielding his scissors since 1952 at the same location on Stettler’s main street.
Hair styles may come and go but Dempsey has been there to stay, and there’s no sign he’s ready to hang up the clippers just yet.
“As long as my health stays good,” says the 79-year-old, as he trims a customer recently in his small basement shop just a few steps down from street level.
On this Thursday morning, just about every seat in his shop is full with regulars.
“It’s always busy,” said Tom Mitchell, who lives in Big Valley, works in Fort McMurray, but always makes it to Dempsey’s for his monthly cut.
“I’ll wait, because he does it the way I like it,” he said, adding there aren’t many old-school barbers left.
Barber shops have always been the “shooting the breeze” epicentres in small communities.
That tradition is alive and well at Dempsey’s.
“We still have a coffee crew that comes every morning,” he says. “They come about 9 a.m. and leave at 10:30 a.m.”
The social aspect has always been one of the best parts of the job for Dempsey.
He fell into barbering when he was a 16-year-old farmboy in Saskatchewan.
“What got me interested in barbering was I had two uncles, one on my mother’s side and one on my dad’s side, and they both cut hair.”
Because Dempsey was not overly fond of school, his dad suggested a barbering career after seeing an advertisement in the local paper.
“He said you don’t seem to want to go to school. Maybe you should think about going in for a barber.”
Molar Barber School in Regina offered a six-month course for $125 — a tidy sum in 1949.
“It was hard to come by,” he recalls.
In those days, a barber had to apprentice for 18 months.
By the time he graduated, Dempsey’s family had moved to the Consort area and he cut hair there and in Coronation until arriving in Stettler in 1952.
He worked for local barber Ivor McIvor for 25 years before he took over the shop.
Over the years, he has seen Stettler double in size and other barber shops come and go.
The town had five barber shops at one time, he says.
“It’s always been a good business town.”
While he has been at the same location his whole career, the building has changed.
The original barber shop was located in a former lumber yard office built in 1905. Unfortunately, the building started showing its age and was eventually torn down around 30 years ago.
“They wanted to take it to the museum, but they didn’t have enough money to move it,” he says.
While barbering is largely unchanged, the same can’t be said for haircut prices.
He’s not sure of the exact pricing after all these years, but he figures a child haircut in those early days was around 50 cents and an adult cut was a quarter more.
It doesn’t seem like much but it was enough. He and his wife, who passed away in 2009, raised five children on his barber’s pay.
One wall of the shop is filled with photographs of customers and their horses and wagons.
Some photos, yellowed with time, look like they have been there for decades.
“Anyone who brought in a team or a saddle horse, I’d put it up,” he says.
For many years, Dempsey raised Belgians and quarter horses and competed in wagon events.
He and his family, which now includes three grandchildren, still take an annual covered wagon camping trip.
Dempsey, who recently remarried, says he had no idea as a young man at barber school that he had just chosen his lifelong career.
“I didn’t even think about it.”
But as he stands and chats and snips, it’s clear he made the right choice.