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Haircut history: A barber chair from Alaska's gold rush past is restored by an antique hobbyist

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published April 28, 2016

The old barber chair in Erik Christensen's shop was around when a shave and a haircut really did cost two bits. Made by the Thos. A. Koch Company of Chicago between 1890 and 1902, it may well have arrived in Alaska during the gold rush era.

What we know for sure is that it was used on the paddlewheel steamer Nenana, built in the town of that name in 1933, which plied the Yukon and Tanana Rivers for more than 20 years before becoming a museum in Fairbanks.

The paddlewheeler, now a National Historic Landmark, underwent extensive restoration over the years that preserved many of its features. But not the ship's barber chair, which was pretty battered by that point. It might well have been tossed, but a man who had worked for one of the companies hired to do the restoration work decided to hang on to it.

Talk about a close shave.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the city of Palmer, Alaska – a town that didn't even exist when the Nenana was launched. It's the home of Erik Christensen, whose obsession has been rebuilding and customizing vintage motorcycles known as "cafe racers."

Christensen had expanded his interest from cafe racers to "all things vintage motorcycle" over time "and my appreciation for all things old grew tremendously."

In the process of tracking down antique parts for his motorcycle, Christensen created an extensive network of knowledgeable people who share his fascination with old stuff. His collection of treasures expanded beyond motorcycles to include sports memorabilia, furniture and "just about anything worth preserving."

Through his network he learned of the old chair, by that point in storage in Fox. Initially, the owner wasn't eager to sell, Christensen said. After all, who knows when you might need a barber chair? But in time, he decided that selling the chair might be the best way to preserve it and gave Christensen a call.

The leather, oak, iron and brass were in remarkably good shape. "Technically, I cleaned and preserved it," Christensen said. "I wanted every scratch, ding and water stain to be part of the chair's history."

He carefully disassembled the chair and cleaned it up piece by piece, the metal seat springs, the screws and nails. The position of each was noted. The fancy oak, including scrolled seat braces and clawed armrests, had to be carefully re-hydrated to prevent further damage prior to getting a fresh finish.

In the process of closely examining every bit of the antique, Christensen made some curious discoveries. In a chamber on the back of the chair was a pack of human hair compressed into a block the size of a deck of cards, hair from hundreds of heads. A video at Christensen's website, northernrestory.com, shows him opening up the box and carefully storing the clippings in a Mason jar.

It's intriguing to contemplate whose heads those hairs came off of. Sourdoughs? Gamblers? G.I.'s taking supplies to Galena in World War II? Heck, if its odyssey to Nenana began with a stint in a Skagway shop -- and it may well have -- Soapy Smith could have sat in it to get a little off the top. Who knows?

Christensen has heard rumors that the chair doubled as a dental chair. Because it could recline and came with a footrest, it was a comfortable spot for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

And then there were some odd markings that suggested shackles may have been attached at some point. Christensen suspects the chair may have been used to restrain rowdy drunks.

Restoration is sort of the family hobby at the Christensen house. His daughter Olivia and son Aksel joined in the project, as they have with their dad's motorcycle projects. And a woodworking expert from Palmer helped with the re-hydration. Restoration work is "a relationship-based hobby," he said.

It took Christensen "a few months off and on to finish it." But it all came back together in good working order. "Every screw went back in the same hole to preserve every squeak and groan the chair may make while sitting in it," he said. And in the process he had the satisfaction of becoming intimately connected to a piece of Alaska's past.

"One of the things I love most about this hobby is getting to hang out with the people that have a vintage piece, getting to know them, the cool things they have, the story behind them, and then capturing that history for generations to come."

The chair has been "a nice break" from motorcycles, he said. But now he's back to dealing with metal and chrome. "I'm working on a 1950s sidecar for my old BMW," he said. "I'm going to make the upholstery resemble a Chesterfield sofa."

As for the next chapter in the chair's story, Christensen said he's looking for someplace where it can be displayed and enjoyed by others. People with ideas for a good home can contact him at northernrestory@gmail.com.

[Read more: Palmer man makes motorcycle-building his art]

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