EAU CLAIRE — Milan “Shorty” Mueller has been cutting hair for 65 years, the last 63 on Birch Street in Eau Claire.
That remarkable run — which his customers say has included countless great haircuts, good times and bad jokes — will come to end on Wednesday afternoon.
That’s when Justin Peterson, a 22-year-old Eau Claire man who got his first haircut at Shorty’s Barber Shop and now fondly calls the 85-year-old sole proprietor “grandpa,” will take his familiar place in the barber’s chair for Mueller’s last appointment.
It will be a bittersweet moment for the gregarious Mueller and his customers alike.
The decision to hang up his scissors, comb, clippers and straight razor for good didn’t come easy because of the bond Mueller has formed with so many of his customers. But his aching shoulders told him it was time.
“This one’s bad,” he said, laying his left hand on his right shoulder before reversing the order and adding, “but this one’s worse.”
If it weren’t for the shoulder issues, Mueller might keep on cutting indefinitely.
“I could keep going,” he said, extending a perfectly still hand and well aware of the answer before asking, “How steady am I?”
Asked what he will miss most about the shop, Mueller didn’t hesitate in his reply: “The camaraderie with the people.”
The classic barbershop at 2119 Birch St. is a place where people come from all over west-central Wisconsin for shorter hair and tales that grow taller by the year, as Mueller and his customers swap stories, tell jokes and trade barbs. And all of that is included for only the $12 he still charges per haircut.
The walls of the shop, which is up for sale, are filled with mementos ranging from trap shooting trophies and wildlife photos to mounted pheasants and Green Bay Packers tributes.
He won’t go far in retirement, as Mueller lives in an apartment above the shop, although he does anticipate spending more time hunting, fishing and enjoying his cabins near Alma and Hayward.
Tales of outdoor pursuits led to Mueller’s bond with Peterson, who caught his first muskie as a middle-schooler with Mueller as his guide. Now both Peterson and his dad, Mark, a regular at Shorty’s for more than 30 years who has reserved Mueller’s second-to-last appointment on Wednesday, have shot their largest bucks on Mueller’s land near Alma.
What began with stories during haircuts has transitioned to stories over dinner, as the Petersons routinely host their barber and dear friend for “family” meals. That tradition will continue after Mueller retires, the Petersons vowed.
“He likes to have fun, so it’s always a good time when you go in the door,” Justin Peterson said of Shorty’s. “He’s always got a joke and a little bit of BS.”
For example, Justin Peterson recalled that he once jokingly asked Mueller for a mullet haircut. Instead, Mueller gave him a mohawk, generating lots of laughs before shaving it down to the “high and tight” crew cut he knew both Petersons prefer.
After a full life that has included such memorable events as serving 18 months as an Army sergeant in the Korean War, attending the legendary “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field and bagging numerous trophy bucks and muskies, Mueller always had plenty of stories to keep his customers entertained.
Mueller, tagged with the nickname “Shorty” as the youngest boy in his elementary school while growing up in the Alma area, earned his barbering degree from the former Eau Claire Vocational School in the former Eau Claire Parks and Recreation Department building that is now home to the Biscuit Lofts apartments.
While attending school, Mueller charged 50 cents for a haircut while working part time for his uncle Rudy Hermann, a barber in Arcadia. Mueller’s great-uncle Edwin “Honey” Schreiber of Alma also was a barber.
After serving a three-year apprenticeship, Mueller took a job in 1957 with barber Jerry Giese on Birch Street. Ten years later, on June 1, 1967, Mueller opened his own shop down the street and has been plying his trade there ever since, with the two months the business was closed this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic the longest he has ever been off work.
During that time, he has at least one customer whose hair he has been cutting for all 63 years of practice in Eau Claire and several families for which he has cut the hair of at least three generations of men.
One particularly memorable experience involved an unexpected visit in 1972 by presidential candidate Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
Mueller recalled trying to cut Wallace’s hair, with Secret Service guys hovering right next to him, as Wallace continuously bobbed his head while answering questions from reporters packed into the shop.
“Oh boy. At least I didn’t injure him,” said Mueller, who was questioned about photographs by FBI agents after Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt later that year.
Bob Barfknecht, 82, who has been getting his hair trimmed at Shorty’s for three decades, recalled asking a neighbor where he could get a good haircut after first moving to the Chippewa Valley.
“They said there’s only one place in town, and that’s Shorty’s, and I’ve been going there ever since,” he said. “I got 30 years of good hunting and fishing stories out of it and a lot of bad jokes.”
Barfknecht said a large sign on the shop’s wall, given to Mueller by friends, is symbolic of the kind of give and take that is such a beloved pastime at the establishment. The framed poster has a picture of a red hat along with these words: “A great cap makes up for a bad barber.”
However, Barfknecht was quick to point out that the poster is only a joke — like so many of the words uttered at Shorty’s — and called Mueller a “master barber.”
“I’ve never had a better haircut than from him,” Barfknecht said, acknowledging he will miss his “delightful” visits with Mueller.
“I’m going to miss him,” Barfknecht confided.
The melancholy look in Mueller’s eyes makes it clear the feeling is mutual for Barfknecht, the Petersons and hundreds of others well-groomed customers.