Remembering the barber shop, talks with Mr. Ramsey

I recall distinctly the very first time I visited Ramsey’s Barber shop in downtown Sevierville.

Newly moved to Sevier County, I was soon to be a freshman at Sevier County High School, and with classes just a few days away, Pop dragged me downtown to get my hair cut at one of the many options available at the time.  Sevierville’s downtown boasted three full-fledged barber shops at the time – two of them on Bruce Street.

Because the wait was shorter, Pop chose Ramsey’s.  I marvel at how this simple choice enriched my life with longstanding respect and admiration for the man known as Allen Ramsey.

Three decades later, every time I drive down Bruce Street, I recall the distinctive smell of tonics splashed generously on the freshly shaved necks of patrons passing in and out, worn spots in the floor from his years of circling the barber chair, and the late summer fixture of a cardboard box filled with tomatoes and cucumbers for sale, fresh from Mr. Ramsey’s garden.

Because I was the shy kid, during our numerous visits, I would sit quietly while my dad boisterously joined in on the conversations that seemed to come straight off the screen from Floyd’s Barber Shop in Mayberry.  Mr. Ramsey would cut my hair, and I would nod as necessary, silently taking in all of the local gossip.

Eventually I reached sixteen and began making solo trips to Mr. Ramsey’s until I graduated and went off to college.  I tried to find a decent substitute near campus and found some that came close, with similar conversation and talk of the local politics, sports, and so on, but it just wasn’t Mr. Ramsey’s.

After my dad passed away my second year at UT, I did not return to school for a while and instead moved back home with mom while we circled the wagons to face the challenges of his loss as a family.

Shortly after moving back in, my mop began to irritate me, so I headed downtown, parallel-parked across from Ramsey’s, and walked in to a jolting flood of memories.  I could vividly picture my father sitting on the bench across from me while hearing the clippers buzzing and the metallic snip of the scissors trimming around my ears.

I sat down in Mr. Ramsey’s chair that day with no expectation that he might remember me, given the numerous patrons passing through his door.

After a few minutes, he could tolerate my silence no longer and began with the simple question, “What’s your name?”

I replied and explained that I used to come here but had been at college for a while.

“I remember you.  You used to come in with your daddy.”  I smiled and nodded, doubting he was recalling me specifically rather than taking a calculated guess for any young adult who came in as a kid.  I could have as easily guessed that the cardboard box of tomatoes sitting on the bench came from his garden.

He quickly disproved my doubts though – convincingly.  “Bob Collins, right?  Lived out New Center way?”

I wondered at his memory as he began to share his recollections of my Pop and sympathized with my loss.

Hearing Mr. Ramsey speak, an educated city-slicker or, say, a misguided teenager could have made the wrong assumptions about his degree of intellect, but I marveled over the years as he shared with me rich stories of his life experiences with such detail and precision that I never again doubted a word he said.

He was born in Greenbriar and regaled me with stories of his dad hiking over the mountains every Sunday night to work for a North Carolina lumber company where he shared a bunk-filled sleeping lodge with dozens of men doing the same.  Then his father would hike back home on a Friday and spend the weekend with the family.

He told me about gardening, serving in the South Pacific during World War II, going to barber school, and the first time he saw ball lightening flying across the fields in Pittman Center.  I had never believed in ball lightening until I heard it from Mr. Ramsey, but to this day, though I have never witnessed it, I believe, based purely on the authenticity of his firsthand account and the accuracy of the other stories he related through the years.

Mr. Ramsey described in vivid detail the great flood of 1938 before the TVA solved many of those issues and how the surface of the rivers in Sevier County used to freeze during the winters.  In my short lifetime, I had never seen weather cold enough to freeze a river in this area, but by this time I took his word on faith.  I later found out that the frozen rivers even hampered the operations of several local ferries.

I remember in 1995 when the post office relocated from Bruce Street across from his barber shop to Dolly Parton Parkway and Mr. Ramsey’s sadness at his subsequently reduced options for people-watching, a favored pastime when business was slow.

Mr. Ramsey’s many patrons, friends, and family were far sadder a decade later when he passed away.  But his legacy lives on for me today in his many stories that pop into my head as I drive and hike around the county, imagining through his words, a simpler time and place.

© Michael L. Collins

This column appeared in the September 5, 2018 edition of The Mountain Press

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