LIVINGSTON -- Clyde Holt didn’t realize he had found such a treasure.
But after a quick Google search, a few phone calls and a lot of elbow grease, the 109-year-old barber pole in Holt’s shop is finally spinning.
And he says you’ll be hard-pressed to find many more like it across the country — if any at all.
If you step inside Homer T’s Barber Shop in Livingston, one of the first things you’ll notice is a lit-up, red-white-and-blue-striped mechanical barber pole, a sight that gives Holt a sense of pride when he cranks it up every morning.
The barber gives the pole “three or four revolutions” when he opens up shop, and that’s enough to keep it spinning all day — just like the ones that were prominently displayed outside barber shops across the country in the early 20th century.
The Paidar Model 46 Mechanical Barber Pole — which has long been out of production — adds a classic, old-school feel to a barber shop that has been a staple of the Livingston community for more than three decades.
A professional barber for more than 30 years, Holt was blown away when he discovered the secret of his surprising treasure.
“I’m tickled to death with this thing,” Holt said in his shop one January morning. “I’m telling you, I don’t think there are a handful of them left in the country. I saw one on eBay going for $6,000. That’s why I can’t put it back outside — it might grow legs.”
‘It was his landmark’
For decades, the barber pole at Homer T’s Barber Shop hadn’t worked, unable to twirl the way it was built to twirl more than a century ago.
Homer Thornton, who opened the shop in 1986, originally bought the pole in the late 1980s after seeing it during a car show in North Carolina. A lover of antiques, Thornton drove back to Louisiana, hopped in his truck and then drove back to North Carolina to pick up what he believed was an electric barber pole, his wife, Olga Thornton, said.
Olga recalled her husband constantly saying he’d fix the broken pole — he believed the issue was a bad motor — but the busy man never found enough time in his schedule to get it spinning before his passing at the age of 75 in April 2017.
Though it had never spun while in his possession, Homer planted the pole outside his shop near the entrance, a visual homage to his profession’s glorious past that was familiar to all in the community.
“It was his landmark,” Olga said. “And Homer loved telling people the story of how he got it.”
When Holt took management of Homer T’s last July, the barber pole was still in its same spot outside the wood building off Florida Boulevard in Livingston. For months, Holt’s attention would constantly drift out the front window to the broken pole, until one day he asked Olga if he could take it home to fix it himself.
That’s when he realized the pole wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be — or even what Homer thought it was when he bought it.
‘Man, you really got something there’
The reason Homer was never able to fix the motor is because there was no motor to fix.
It wasn’t an electric barber pole, but a mechanical barber pole that operated via a crank system inside its cast iron casing.
After his surprising discovery, Holt called the William Marvy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota — which has produced more than 82,000 poles since 1936 — to determine the authenticity of the barber pole.
During the phone call with the WMC representative, Holt learned that it was first manufactured in Chicago in 1910, one of the last of its kind to be made before the industry switched to electric barber poles that operated via a small inner motor.
“There’s probably only a handful of these mechanical poles left in the country that can still run,” Holt said he was told. “[The WMC rep] told me, ‘Man, you really got something there.’”
Holt said he spent a week working on the barber pole, completely gutting it out and cleaning all the rust and grease built up over nearly 110 years. But even from the start, the task proved to be more difficult than Holt imagined.
“Unfortunately, bringing it home and taking it out the truck by myself was a struggle,” Holt said with a laugh. “All of this is cast iron, and it was so heavy I broke the glass on it when I took it out of the truck. I had to call the William Marvy Company to ask if they had glass that size. Luckily they did.”
After making the $222 purchase for new glass, Holt illuminated the pole by welding a light socket to the inside. He then stripped the porcelain case of the paint someone had mistakenly added and made a crank out of a lawn sweeper and a piece of pipe.
Now when Holt cranks it up, you can hear the coral spring tightening inside.
“This is as authentic as it gets,” Holt said. “This was in pretty rough shape when I started on it. It took a lot of work to get it going, but I’m glad I did so I can enjoy it and people can enjoy it.”
‘A little piece of history’
Besides repairing the barber pole and moving it inside, Holt has kept the 33-year-old shop pretty much as it was when Homer had customers travel from as far as Baton Rouge, Hammond, Port Allen and Lafayette for their regular haircut appointments.
Pictures of Homer at various car shows still hang in the wooden shop, and much of the furniture from when the shop first opened is still inside. For Olga, it was important to keep alive the memory of her late husband, who personally designed every nook and cranny of the shop “from the ground up.”
Even if it meant turning down potential suitors to run the shop, Olga wanted to make sure she found someone who would “appreciate Homer’s style and keep the shop as is.” Homer was too much of a community pillar to do otherwise, she said.
“Homer used to always say, ‘I’m just a little small town barber,’ but when we opened the church for visitation [after he passed], I did not sit down for five hours until when we closed the doors,” Olga recalled. “So many people wanted to say their last goodbyes to him because he was loved by so many people, and that barber shop in Livingston is like a little piece of history now.”
“I wanted to keep his tradition alive,” she continued, “and I haven’t changed anything. I just clean up and make repairs. I washed all the walls and ceilings and everything with my hands, without using chemicals. I just wanted to keep the same atmosphere. It was not easy for me to find that person who appreciates that and doesn’t want to change anything.”
Olga said she found that person in Holt, who only added a “We Support Our Troops” flag made by his son, who served tours in Korea and Iraq.
Holt said he hopes the barber pole will attract people to his shop, whether they’re in need of a haircut or just wanting to look at a rotating piece of history.
“I love showing it off because I worked very hard to get it working,” he said. “It’s something for Livingston to be proud of.”