Tal Budd, Northfield Character and Oldest Barber

Originally Published in the July 2012 Entertainment Guide

Tal Budd was an active barber for 70 years. Photo courtesy Northfield Historical Society Collection.

I wrote two paragraphs about Henry Talford Budd, known as “Tal,” in my third Historic Happenings column in April of 2007. I was writing about events in past Aprils and had found this ad in the Northfield News: “Masquerade Ball! Easter Monday, April 7, 1890, at the Opera House. Tickets $1, gallery 50 cents with the privilege of dancing after 11 o’clock. Everybody invited. H.T. Budd.”

I discovered that besides sponsoring balls in the 19th century, Budd was reputed to be the nation’s oldest active barber in the 20th century, a claim which made it into “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” This famous syndicated cartoon feature was read daily by 80 million readers at the height of its popularity.

Budd, who was truly a town character, was born May 23, 1858, in Waterford, into a pioneer farm family. On Sept. 8, 1870, when Budd was 12, the story goes that Budd’s father, Stephen Budd, took his son straight from plowing the field to be apprenticed as a barber to Tal’s uncle, Salvatore Raineri, who had a barbershop starting in 1867 at 319 Division St., in the Gunderson Building (now housing Goodbye Blue Monday).

Raineri comes down through history as a town character himself. An Italian immigrant, Raineri fought in the Civil War and, according to his obituary in the Northfield News of Oct. 27, 1894, “He saw a great deal of active service, for wherever any fighting was to be done there the captain always wanted to be.” Raineri (who had married Budd’s aunt, Sarah Budd) was said to be one of Northfield’s most “active and best known citizens,” a “loyal member of nearly every secret society represented in Northfield” who “took especial delight in everything that required a uniform and military drill.” Budd once declared, “Raineri was the best barber that ever lived.”

Budd spent five years as an apprentice, then was a barber in Red Wing and Lake City before returning to Northfield to establish a barbershop on West Third Street on April 15, 1878, where he worked tirelessly for the next 62 years. (The site of his shop was taken down when highway 3 was relocated through the West Side in 1958.)

H.T. and Ellen Budd Family, circa 1897. Children are Roy, William, Helen, Grace, Leo and Howard. Photo courtesy the Budd Family.

The Northfield News of Sept. 6, 1935, quoted Budd as saying that blacks ran the barber shops in Minnesota when he started and just a few white men cut hair and shaved whiskers. Then barbers’ colleges sprang up teaching the trade for about $100 and whites displaced blacks. Budd said in this story that the top figure he ever earned from any customer was 85 cents, “which he believes is as high a sum as any barber should extract at any time.”

Budd’s usual hours were 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and on Sundays from 7 until 11 a.m. or noon. He once recalled, “I’ve come down Sunday mornings and found ‘em on the step waiting for me.” Sunday was a big day of business from farmers, whose budget often allowed for only one haircut a year.

A Northfield News article on Feb. 8, 1890, praised Budd as a “natural artist in tonsorial work” who “consequently has a large and growing trade.” He also ran the only public bath house and carried a “case of choice cigars” for his customers. In these early days, Budd recalled in a Northfield News story of April 19, 1929, a ten-cent shave was the “chief item of business” and “haircuts were genuine shearing bees,” not simply trims. His customary attire of frock coat and derby was mentioned, “for he believes in maintaining the dignity of his profession.” (His 1880’s style was duly noted in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,”  as well.)

When Budd was celebrating his 65th year as a barber, the Northfield News ran a story on Sept. 6, 1935, which said that early in the century Budd gave a special rate of ten cents for a haircut. Budd  “hung up a record of 668 haircuts and at least twice that number of shaves during that month.” In the interview, Budd said he preferred hair cutting to shaving and added, “I was as good a hair dresser in the days when I was a young bub starting in my own shop as there was in the state, and I knew how to hold the comb and shears. About thirty young men learned their trade in my shop. Today, after 65 years as a barber my eyes and nerves are nearly as good as they ever were, and except for some trouble with my legs I would not know I am getting old.” He said he had no intentions of retiring and though closing earlier now, he “finds things dull during the long evenings and would much prefer to be leaning over his barber’s chair.”

Over the years, Budd was in the news for reasons other than his tonsorial longevity. On Jan. 15, 1910, the headline on the front page of the Northfield News read, “By narrow margin, H.T. Budd Struck by Rock Island Train Escapes with Life.” Budd had a “miraculous escape from death or serious injury when he was overtaken and thrown from the track by the northbound Rock Island passenger train” in the course of taking a short cut to his shop. An upturned coat collar prevented him from hearing the train approach, he was struck in the back and “thrown with great force to the icy space between the main and side tracks.” Despite great pain from the shock and badly scratched face and hands, Budd recovered and missed only two weeks of work at the shop. 

Dusty Budd portrayed his great-great-grandfather in Cemetery Stories of the Northfield Historical Society in 2010. Photo courtesy Northfield Historical Society Collection.

Just a few months later, Budd was back in the news. According to the Northfield News of April 30, 1910, Budd sued the mayor and aldermen of Northfield in district court for having granted him a license to operate a billiard and pool table, which was then annulled for no reason. Budd asked for a “balm to his injured reputation and loss of business” in the amount of $1,500, claiming that “he has been characterized as a lawbreaker and an undesirable citizen and that he ran a disorderly place.” When that case was dismissed, he brought a new suit in March of 1911.

Budd, who had married Ellen McGuire on Nov. 25, 1879, became a widower on Feb. 21, 1931, when she died. Four of their children survived her (Roy, William, Grace and Helen) with two sons, Howard and Leo, having preceded her in death.

On May 25, 1939, the column “Heard on the Square” in the Northfield News said, “The barbers of Northfield got together to give a party for the ‘oldest barber in the United States’ on the occasion of the 81st birthday anniversary of H.T. Budd.” Budd’s inclusion in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column as the “oldest active barber in the United States” was mentioned, along with his claim that “he has spent more hours behind the barber chair than any other, living or dead.” His record at that time was 69 years as a barber, with 61 years at the same location. The story noted that he would spend time in the coming summer visiting nearby towns trying to win a hair tonic contest sponsored by the Lucky Tiger tonic company with his own version he had been making for 60 years. A barbershop quartet entertained and “Mr. Budd gave a demonstration of his hair restorer and also put fancy curls and waves of the older days in the hair of the barbers.”

Erling Kindem of Farmington told me that Budd usually wore a toupee at work. But one day when he was not wearing it he recommended his hair restorer to a new customer, saying, “Just try it! It works real good!”  Budd then went into another room, put on his hairpiece and returned, saying to the astonished man, “Look at how good it is!” Kindem also recalled a time when his mother gave him ten cents to get a haircut. Kindem protested, “Ma, it’s 15 cents for kids!” His mother said, “Tell him it’s all you got.” Budd accepted the dime, possibly not wanting to lose a customer to barber Ed Gibbs across the street. Kindem remembered Budd telling him that even though he was in Lake City when the James-Younger Gang tried to rob the Northfield Bank in 1876, he was able to hear about it 20 minutes after it happened. Budd’s explanation to the boy: “telegraphy.”

Budd made it past the mark of 70 continuous years of working as a barber when he died of a stroke at the age of 82 on the night of Monday, Oct. 14, 1940. Though he had felt slightly ill, he had worked at his shop through the Friday before his death. His front-page obituary in the Northfield News on Oct. 17 said that for 62 years his W. Third Street shop saw “few modern devices,” with the exception of running water and electric clippers, and “it stands today much as it was when opened in 1878.” The story noted that in the preceding year he had given a customer a haircut while blindfolded, the same style the man had gotten from Budd in 1903. Just the past summer he had cut the hair of Robert Lanphear, three years old, great-great-grandson of Abel Lanphear, one of Budd’s first customers in the 1870s from Waterford (thus serving five generations).

Budd’s obituary listed survivors as sons R.H. Budd and W.E. Budd, daughters Grace Nixon and Helen Fink, eight grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, a sister and many nieces and nephews.

Sketch of Tal Budd in his customary attire.

There are quite a few Budd descendants working and/or living in the Northfield area today, including these great-grandchildren: Ted Budd, Barb Budd, George Budd, Chuck Budd and Margaret Haugen. Great-great-grandchildren are Dusty Budd, Johnna Harmer, Allie Harmer, Samantha Budd, and Andrew Budd and there is one great-great-great-grandchild Liam Olson-Budd. Nineteen descendants live outside of Northfield.

In the fall of 2010 Dusty Budd had the honor of portraying his great-great-grandfather Tal Budd in Cemetery Stories of the Northfield Historical Society.  Dusty told me, “My family is very important to me and being able to bring him back to life for a brief time was an absolute treat.” He feels the work ethic of his family stems from Tal Budd, who worked for seven decades in Northfield.

“I am proud to be a Budd and a living example of the standard he set,” said Dusty, noting that Tal Budd “loved and appreciated what Northfield is all about” and “would cut your hair for nothing if you couldn’t afford it or would give you a discount if you were short of cash.” And, Dusty concluded, “Northfield is a unique town,” made that way by people like his great-great-grandfather: “He’s a perfect example of a ‘townie’ and that in itself is enough to make me smile!”

Thanks to Barb Budd for providing me with genealogical and other information about the Budd family.

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