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Montello barbershop’s future in doubt

December 24, 2018

MONTELLO — The location and future of Shirley’s Old Time Barbershop is precarious.

The foundation of the business, even during the driest months, is in constant contact with the Montello River, which flows south out of Lake Montello and dissects this city’s historic downtown before merging with the Fox River and, miles downstream, emptying into Puckaway Lake.

So when heavy rains soaked the region in August and turned even the smallest creeks into raging torrents, Shirley Lynch had considerable concern. Her shop, a fixture in this city’s downtown for generations, has now been closed for nearly four months.

The two barber chairs have been removed and are in storage in her daughter’s garage along with most of the clippers, straight-edge razors and the master barber certificates that had lined the wall above the mirrors.

The magazine rack in the shop still holds copies of Time, Conde Nast Traveler and Car and Driver magazines. The historic, solid brass cash register sits idle, and there’s been no need to refill the aluminum dog dishes near the front door with food and water for Tate, Lynch’s shih tzu-poodle mix. And, because there is no heat in the building, buckets, garbage cans and other containers used to catch water from the ceiling held chunks of ice last week.

“I thought the river was going to take my building down the river. It was bad,” said Lynch, 58. “I know a lot of people got it worse than me. But I’m not working and it’s killing me.”

Lynch is one of 10 business owners in Wisconsin approved for a $15,000 no-interest disaster recovery microloan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Madison Region Economic Partnership. The loans are designed to provide a short-term source of funds for repair work and operating expenses until more long-term recovery funding can be secured and have a two-year repayment period.

Even with the funds, the situation for Lynch is depressing. She needs more money in order to bring her business back to life so she can continue the shaves, buzz cuts and trims she has been giving since graduating from Madison Area Technical College nearly four decades ago.

The foundation of the barbershop’s building, reinforced with brick years ago by Lynch and her husband, Floyd Davis, held. The damage came from above due to a collapsed roof from a building next door but connected to the barbershop. The rain came through a hole in her neighbor’s roof and worked its way into the walls and ceiling of Lynch’s shop. Water poured through the light fixtures of the barbershop and damaged her walls and red-and-white checkered floor. Meanwhile, the ceiling of the back storage room collapsed, while its floor, where Lynch typically stores supplies and her Christmas decorations, has been compromised and is on the verge of falling into the basement.

“It’s safe to walk here, there and over there,” Lynch said during a tour.

Record rains

Southern Wisconsin was hammered by record rains and widespread flooding during the last week of August that killed two people and resulted in damages of more than $200 million in 15 counties. Those weather events destroyed 56 homes, caused “major” damage to another 564 and “minor” damage to nearly 4,000 others. In addition, 14 businesses were destroyed, 62 sustained major damage and 96 reported minor damage, according to state officials.

In Marquette County, which has a population of just 15,300 people, all the roads that cross the Fox River and Buffalo Lake were damaged or topped by water which split the county in half. Travel times were extended by an hour in some detours, first responders were forced to stage emergency vehicles and equipment on both sides of the river, and schools in Montello closed for a week, according to a report from the state and submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There were no visible signs last week of the flood, and water in the Montello River appeared to be at a manageable level. The downtown business district in this city of 1,445 features several historic buildings, the waterfalls at Daggett Memorial Park that were created from an old granite quarry and a miniature chapel that pumps out Christmas carols over a loudspeaker once an hour. The Granite Falls Supper Club, where the menu includes smoked oysters and frog legs, is for sale. More Healthy Foods & Cafe offers up organic fare and music, while historic Vaughn Hall, constructed in 1912 for a blacksmith shop on the ground floor and dance hall on the second, is now home to a museum and community events. One of the newest businesses is Oyster Crackers, a soup-and-sandwich diner a few doors down from Lynch’s barbershop.

“In the last year we’ve had seven or eight new businesses open,” said Jim Houdek, president of the Montello Chamber of Commerce, who manages a local machine shop. “There are some buildings that have challenges but there’s a lot of positives happening in our downtown.”

‘Telling on myself’

But for Lynch, whose husband has Parkinson’s disease and is in a nursing home, the last four months have been a nightmare. The building next to her shop at one time was home to Mary’s Coffee Cup and more recently, Trigger’s Grill. It’s been a few years since the building has held a business, and the building’s owner, Rob Fricke, who could not be reached for this story, has been unresponsive to Lynch, she said. Court action is not an option for Lynch because she believes Fricke, who recently went through an eviction hearing for his home according to court records, has little resources. His building, at 15 W. Montello St., is in dire need of repair and renovation and is assessed at just $12,700, according to city records.

In late August, with water pouring into her building, Lynch, who suspected mold issues in Fricke’s building, contacted the county health inspector, who then referred the issue to the state. However, when the state inspector saw the condition of Lynch’s barbershop, he issued an order shutting down the barbershop and cutting electricity until repairs could be made to the building.

“I ended up telling on myself,” Lynch said. “Nobody will give me an estimate. Everybody’s busy because of the flood. All the carpenters are busy. I’ve just had a hard time getting someone to commit to the job.”

‘This is my life’

Lynch grew up in Dane County and spent time in foster homes in Oregon and Madison. After graduating from East High School, she enrolled at MATC, where at that time there were separate programs for barbers and beauticians. She had stints at Stan’s and later Tom’s barbershops on Madison’s East Side and at US Male on Milwaukee Street, managed a shop in Cambridge and cut hair in Stoughton before moving to Rio and taking a job in Montello at Bob’s Hometown Barbershop. She thought of buying the business, but in 1994, when Matt Brown lowered the price on his shop along the river to $16,000, she purchased the place. Its assessed value is now $19,400, with an annual property tax bill of $521.

Initially, it wasn’t uncommon for Lynch to have six to 10 people waiting for haircuts, but in recent years Lynch has taken side jobs in an effort to support her business. A basic cut is $15 and includes a neck shave, beard trims are an extra $5, and a full face-shave with a straight edge is $25.

“This place was built to be a barbershop and has always been a barbershop,” said Lynch, who believes the building’s history dates to the 1800s.

“This is my life. This barbershop is nothing without a barber and I’m a barber and I can’t really be a barber without my barbershop.”

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