When Ben McCool was a youngster, one of his jobs was cleaning out spittoons in his grandfather’s barber shop.
The school bus would let him off at the shop, and he would help sharpen barbering instruments, sweep haircut trimmings off the floor and shine customers’ shoes while they got their shave and a haircut from Henry McCool at McCool’s Barber Shop in Rome. It was a one-man barber shop, but by age 15, Ben McCool was helping his grandfather cut hair.
He joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Trion High School in 1986. McCool cut sailors’ hair on the side while serving as a signalman until officers noticed him and transferred him to storekeep, where he could spend more time at his avocation.
When he entered the University of Georgia after service, he studied agriculture because farming also was in the family background. He would help on his uncle’s 600-acre farm in Coosa when he wasn’t in school or at the barber shop.
His agriculture degree led him to a lab analyst’s job with Trion’s water department, but barbering beckoned him back. His grandfather had died while McCool was at the university, so he opened his own shop in Cassville. He had had no formal training other than what he had picked up from his grandfather, but he had apprenticed and passed a state barber’s license exam.
From Cassville, McCool worked in shops in Trion, Marietta and one in an old feed store beside Kennesaw Mountain.
He decided to go into salon barbering because traditional men’s barber shops were getting away from some of the old-fashioned methods his grandfather taught him, particularly straight-razor shaves and neck shaves after a haircut. He is able to use all the skills he has learned in a salon setting.
McCool walked into Katie Glover’s Hair Dimensions in Gainesville last summer looking for an opportunity to continue his love of barbering. She was looking for somebody like him, and by July he was cutting hair again. He brought with him his pride and joy, the 81-year-old barber chair used by his grandfather. He even dresses with black bow tie, white shirt and black pants as Grandfather McCool did. But no spittoon.
Most of his customers are men, but he cuts women’s hair, too. He has seen the traditional men’s cut from even layers to long, uneven layers, especially among the younger set.
Because of the economy, McCool won’t turn away customers if they’re trying to find a job and lack the money. In fact, he has accepted trades for haircuts, "anything from moonshine to a bushel of corn," he says.
But that was in days past. Now he doesn’t touch alcoholic beverages of any kind, and his favorite trade is honey or sorghum syrup, which he splits with Katie Glover when he gets it.
McCool married Heather Wyatt, a part Cherokee Indian, following in the footsteps of his pioneer forefathers who married Cherokees. The McCools came to Georgia during the Dahlonega gold rush in the 1830s, and his wife’s family was from around Fort Payne, Ala., earlier known as Willstown. Because they had married white settlers in the area, they were able to escape the Trail of Tears when the Cherokees were removed to Oklahoma.
Mrs. McCool and their two children, Elijah, 3, and J.W., 2, plan to move to Gainesville from Rome soon.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.