After 47 years in the trade, long-time Petrolia barber, Bill Kell, has hung up the clippers.
Kell closed up his familiar downtown business at the end of May and his retirement truly marks a turning point for the HardOilTown.
For the first time in its long and storied history the town no longer has a traditional men’s barber shop, an institution that has largely given way in recent years to today’s unisex hair salons.
In retirement, Kell said he hopes to “get in a little fishing” and continue his annual hunting trips to Northern Ontario.
Kell noted that the government did away with the barber designation a number of years ago and replaced it with the term hair stylist, which is a person trained in doing both men’s and women’s hair.
“I guess in a way it is the end of an era, that’s the sad part about it,” said Kell, recalling that when he started in the business Petrolia had no less than seven full-time barbers.
They included such memorable characters as Bob Hastings, Bo Hartley, Jim Hunter, Keith Babcock, Doug Stuchberry, Herb Slack and Walt McLeod, names that are sure to conjure up fond memories for many of the town’s more mature residents.
“I have customers now that are third generation,” said Kell, adding that many of them have never had their hair cut anywhere else.
“A lot of them came in here for the first time with their fathers, who plunked them in the chair and told them to behave themselves.”
Kell noted that in the early days of his working life, he worked for a short time at Holmes Foundry and the former Fiberglass plant in Sarnia, but soon decided that industry wasn’t for him and enrolled in the College of Practical and Scientific Barbering in Windsor, Ont.
He pointed to his graduation certificate, which still hung proudly on the wall of his shop, adjacent to his first business license, issued in 1964 by the late Harry Kerby, the town’s perennial clerk-administrator.
Kell noted that he barbered in Watford and Bridgen for a couple of years before opening his shop in Petrolia, but actually got his start filling in several days a week for barbers in both Sarnia and London while they took time off or went on vacation.
“I did that for a while to get some experience and make enough money to get out on my own,” he said.
He noted that he was filling in for a barber in Sarnia when he made an offer to purchase the building he is presently in (formerly Ron Wilson’s plumbing shop and prior to that the Ministry of Agriculture office).
“I was cutting hair when I got a call from the lawyer telling me the deal had gone through,” he said.
A number of years later he purchased Joe Agocs’ shoe repair shop across the street (adjacent to the bowling alley) and moved his business over there but kept his present building.
That was fortuitous, because on Aug. 10, 2004 his shop was engulfed by a spectacular fire that ravaged the town’s only bowling alley and a number of other long-established businesses.
Nevertheless, he was able to return to his original location and in a short time was back in business, much to the delight of his many long-held customers.
However, Kell noted that barbering had its dark years, pointing out that he started in business just a few years prior to the advent of the popular British singing group, the Beatles, who many will remember, ushered in the era of long hair for men.
“It was bad, guys who used to come in for a haircut every two or three weeks, you might only see every three months or so,” he said, adding that a lot of barbers from that time ended up working in industrial plants in Sarnia.
Nevertheless, he noted that he survived that era.
“The people of Petrolia have been good to me and I know I’m going to miss my old customers,” he said.
“You might think 47 years is a long journey, but it seems like it’s been a very short one.”