In the 1950’s my parents would ship us kids off to our grandparents in West Texas. My grandfather, Big Jack, would take us horseback riding and rabbit hunting in Fisher County but his life was simple.
He would come off graveyard at the gypsum plant, have breakfast and then get about 6 hours of sleep. After a quick lunch, he would watch “As the World Turns,” then walk to downtown Sweetwater to “Spit and Whittle”. This was the local Barber Shop, where he and his friends would discuss Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and solve the world’s problems. I wanted to catch Kennett’s version of S&W, so this morning, Good Friday, I was the first person in Burton’s Barbershop at 4 a.m.
We talked about being that third space after home and work where people can go and socialize. You know, spit and whittle. Bob Burton said the Barber Shop was that place in the old days; “we even had spittoons when there was a trolley out front.” (Burton’s was founded in 1892 by his grandfather.)
Bob said that today, other places fill that need too, as our Kennett Starbucks where Mike Solomon does a great job of making you feel welcome and where Bob Burton stops in on weekend mornings. I would add The Philter, a coffee house which my daughter loved going to so much she considered having her wedding reception there, until her mother found out. We did use them as a caterer.
Then there’s “The Shops at Liberty Place” where Joan and I conducted our many interviews for our book “The Story of Kennett.” However, Burton’s is the grandfather of all these modern places of communitty refuge; for 127 years, it has been our Spit and Whittle.
Bob and I shared stories of the past, present and future for about an hour. It was appropriate that the first paying customer that came in was Joe Leo, a Kennett classmate of mine that I had not seen in decades. This really is a place where everyone knows your name.
Bob Burton started cutting hair in 1955 after going to Barber School in Philadelphia. He was a third generation barber. His father worked 65 years, and Bob is in his 64th. He works 70 hours a week, opening at 4am. I remember my friend Bud Pierce saying one day he wanted to be the first one in the chair, he tried it, showed up at 4am and was 3rd in line. He gave up; no one works as hard as Bobby Burton does.
In the beginning, men who had a barber’s license could cut women’s hair but women, beauticians with a cosmetology license, could not cut men’s hair. Men had very short hair and would get haircuts every two weeks. Then the Beatles came to town, kids stopped getting haircuts all together and everyone else went 4-6 weeks.
In 1960s, the laws changed and women could cut men’s hair. In a few years, 60% of all barbers had closed shop in the Philadelphia area. During the 80’s it improved some and you can make a fair living today, but the high schools are all about college and many of the trades get little support.
Bob is old school and does not feel people want to work this hard. His kids all went to great colleges, played sports, and came out to great business success. If you want an authentic Burton haircut, you might consider getting it sooner than later. He is the last of the breed.
He used to have other partners but most of them have retired and there is just Karen, who he has worked with for 18 years. Karen cuts women’s hair too. They do many kids. I asked how many 1st haircuts they had done and he said hundreds.
What Mr. Burton doesn’t know about Kennett sports is not worth knowing. He had Nate Kendig for his baseball coach and Ken Webb for soccer at Kennett High School. He is a friend of Curt Shilling (World Series Pitcher), and the late Dallas Green (Phillies Coach and World Series Champion).
Dick Vermeil (Super Bowl winning football coach) and Bill Burgey (All-Pro Eagle Linebacker) were customers. I asked Bob who was the best athlete that ever came out of Kennett and he said; Joe Ranalli was the last 16 letter man (KHS ’53). Then he added, Bobby Morse (KHS ’68) played basketball for Penn and averaged 31 points a game as a professional in Europe. Al Meltzer, of Comcast Sports, said Morse was the best 6’ 8” shooter he had ever seen.
Bob doesn’t play favorites, he feels all his customers are his favorite, except for the 1% of people who are just mean. He doesn’t hold that against them though, they’re mean to everyone.
He says Kennett has changed 100%, the only thing that is the same is Sam’s Sub Shop that opened in 1946. There used to be a movie theater and three pharmacies in town, a trolley and a hotel, which Bob saw burn down twice. He likes it that he has all kinds of customers. He stays away from politics, especially if people don’t see the world the way he does. He is proud that he has so many police officers for customers and some come from as far as Upper Darby.
I came away from our conversation feeling that Kennett is very fortunate to have Burton’s Barber Shop and Bob Burton with his service to our communitty. On top of being there for us 70 hours a week, he and Prissy Roberts put on the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Hall of Fame Banquet each year that has been running since 1974.
This is where 250-400 people come together to celebrate old timers and a great athlete’s speech. In this home of the Squire of Kennett Square (Herb Pennock- Hall of Fame pitcher in the 1920’s) we don’t forget our past in celebrating sports and baseball in this town where everyone knows your name.