The Elkhorn Barbershop

By Larry Horton

The Most Unique Shop in Bentonville

The Elkhorn Barbershop is a place that is near and dear to my heart. My grandfather was a barber there and I spent many days of my youth hanging around, reading comics and listening to the older men discuss the news of the day. When I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Arkansas, I chose to write a history of the shop and my research uncovered a world of information based on this one business.

A dapper Kit Campbell in about 1890.

A dapper Kit Campbell in about 1890.

The shop was started in 1888 by R. B. Lawson and he was joined later that year by K.C. “Kit” Campbell. The name of the shop began with local bank and businessman A. J. Bates. Bates owned the People’s Bank at the corner of Main and A and he was a big game hunter who hunted in Colorado. When he killed an elk or a deer, he had the head mounted and displayed in a room behind the bank. He decided that in order for more folks to enjoy his collection, a barbershop should occupy the room as well, giving the men a “manly” place to visit, have a haircut, and partake in the news of the day.

The location of the shop later provided some unusual excitement. The robbery of $11,000 from the People’s Bank on June 5th, 1893 by Henry Starr, had an unsettling effect on the usually affable Campbell. According to eyewitness W. L. Marley, the barber shop, “had a door fronting Main Street, which the robbers passed coming and going. However, Kit did not invite them in and greet them with his usual pleasant, ‘be seated, you’re next in one of the chairs,’ but instead bolted the door and, some of his enemies, if he had any, reported that Kit tried to hide in the trash can in the rear of his shop. Kit still insists that he got a close shave himself.”

In 1918 the shop was moved to the south side of the square where VisitBentonville is located now. Campbell took the trophy collection with him, compliments of Mr. Bates. By now, the collection included a dozen or more deer and elk heads and twenty sets of horns; one set of cow horns measured six feet across. There were also mounted fish and small animals on the walls. Additionally, there were small animal furs, Civil War swords, powder horns, and various hunting paraphernalia. Several photographs of different festive Bentonville occasions, such as sale day on the square, the Macon-Carson Apple Brandy Distillery, the Bentonville Fruit Fair, and others adorned the walls.

Elkhorn Barbershop, c. 1914, Kit Campbell far right

Elkhorn Barbershop, c. 1914, Kit Campbell far right

The most memorable part of the Elkhorn aside from the mounted game heads, were the shaving mugs. Mugs became popular across the US in the mid-1880’s. When Bentonville politicians James H. Berry and Samuel Peel returned from Washington D.C. one summer, they brought with them their personalized shaving mugs. This started a trend, and all of the local businessmen had to have one. They were displayed in a rack called “The Bentonville Rack.”

The Bentonville Rack, from J. Dickson Black’s History of Benton County

The Bentonville Rack, from J. Dickson Black’s History of Benton County

Each mug was personalized with the gentleman’s name and often times a picture representing their occupation. It was a status symbol of old Bentonville. The mug collection is still largely intact in a local collection, which is impressive given the amount of time that has passed. My grandfather became a barber in 1919 and, although he was a reticent man, his stories were interesting when I could pry them out of him. He began his career in Gravette and when he wasn’t busy cutting hair he would cross the street and shoe horses for the blacksmith. He came to Bentonville by horse and buggy in the old days, quite a trip from Hiwasse where he lived. Everyone wanted to have his haircut on Saturday in time for church on Sunday and, he said, “If a barber couldn’t make a week’s wages on Saturday, he wasn’t cut out for the job.”

There were three or four barbers working in Bentonville in the early 1900’s and each businessman was faithful to his barber. It became the place to exchange news, gossip, politics, farming – everything under the sun. A hidden compartment in the floor at the back of the shop held whiskey for those who wanted it, my grandfather said, and lively conversations were known to be had following its use.

The advent of the safety razor led to the demise of the shaving mug, and the last one was bought for use in the 1950’s. The shop lasted until 1976, when the owner, Charles Turner, lost his lease. Charlie, as many of you know, still operates a shop at the corner of South Main and 4th. He doesn’t look any different now than he did in the mid-60’s in my opinion. Some things indeed never change.

The shop saw a lot of history in its day, with the big picture window looking out onto the square. The whole world was happening out there, if they could take time to look up.

The Spingdale Daily News wrote an article about the shop in 1974 featuring a picture of my grandfather.

“Horton remembers driving to the local picture show in a buggy some fifty years ago (around 1925) because ‘that was the only transportation I had at the time.’ He estimated that during that era a shave cost about fifteen cents and a haircut twenty-five cents. ‘Times certainly have changed,’ the tobacco chewing Hiwasse resident declared, while relaxing in a vacant barber chair at the close of another business day.” Miss ya Gandpa.