EMAIL mj.morris@live.ca


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Alfred 'Alf' Comte with the landmark crooked tree in front of his barber shop saw main street change to busy thoroughfare with music also very much part of his life in Chapleau

When Alfred 'Alf' Comte retired in 1961, he was not just remembered for his barber shop on Chapleau's main street, but also for the music that was very much a part of his life.

Arriving in Chapleau in 1911, at the age of 17 from Thouars, France, Mr. Comte became the Chapleau boys' best friend from childhood up, first working in Richard Brownlee's barber shop, then taking it over from him. He decided to stay: "It was young, it was colourful, it was growing," he said of Chapleau.

"Over the years he made a host of friends," Margaret Costello wrote in her Sudbury Star column, marking Mr. Comte's retirement. "Among the very young, when he first clipped hair from the heads of tiny tots, and turned them in real boys, and from there on men of all ages."

However, music was very much "part of the scheme of things" Mrs. Costello wrote, "and he played the violin well, so well in fact, that he taught others" as well as playing in a popular local orchestra.

Although at first he did not speak English, he soon met D.O. Payette, who became his interpreter as well as his first best friend in the new country. A bit later they formed Payette's Orchestra, and were in great demand for all kinds of functions at churches, concerts, dances and benefits.

While working at Mr. Brownlee's shop, he met Herb Lucas, who worked with him for 32 years, and also played in the orchestra. Other early members were Tommy Rose and J.N. Burns.

Blanche Vaillancourt came to Chapleau to visit with her sister Rose Sauve, met Mr. Comte, and in 1914 they were married.

At a retirement stag held for him, Mr. Comte recalled the early main street scene in Chapleau when in front of the barber shop grew a crooked tree, adding that it was a landmark from coast to coast.

Mrs. Costello wrote: "Passengers on trains during the wait at Chapleau divisional point who hankered for a supply of short snorts to continue their journey, were directed to the liquor store, next to the barber shop with the comment, 'You can't miss it. It's right by the crooked tree.'"

The Crooked Tree (www.chapleau.com)
Mr. Comte recalled that in those early days the only traffic marks along main street were wagon wheel ruts. Over the years, looking out the big picture window of the barber shop he saw main street change into a busy thoroughfare with new enterprises to meet new changes and the demands of Chapleau's growing population.

At the head table with Mr. Comte were some of his old friends including Mr. Payette, George O'Hearn, Hiram Paul, Ben Vezina, J.N. Burns, James Encil, Thomas McKee, John Reid, Chapleau Reeve D.J. 'Jim' Broomhead who also played a mean sax in the orchestra, and sons Raoul and Gerard Comte, and his grandson Lawrence.

At this point, I extend my thanks to Lawrence, who we called by the nickname 'Ton' for providing me with information on his grandfather. I decided to reach out to some others to share their memories of Mr. Comte, and here are some of the replies I received. Thanks to all.

Harry "Butch" Pellow
"I recall many instances when I was directed to the barber in anticipation of such things as special school events, choir and church proceedings and other such activities requiring neatness of and
presentation of countenance. As I recall I would often arrive in the barber shop after school ... maybe way after school... sweaty and in my woolen breeches covered in snow and damp- (and smelly too) and told to sit on the ice cream parlour chairs against the wall to await my turn in the chair. I recall waiting sometimes for a the big very long time while more recent arrives in the shop (adults) would precede me.

"Only later did I appreciate that the snow covered clothes, sweaty and smelly breeches and a restless young boy were the last thing wanted before the shop closed for the evening. I and you will recall the big picture window, the dark snow covered streets and that the barber shop was the last place you would want to be when you could otherwise be playing hockey on Aberdeen Street.

"Do you recall the glass case against the inside wall of the shop, the mirrored back wall, the linoleum floor covering water soaked and spotted by the snow that was tracked in, the wire backed, ice cream parlour cane seating, the picture of the dogs playing poker, and the long calendar with a rural scene of somewhere none of us had ever been?

"Do you recall the aroma of the after shave and the smelly stuff they sprinkled on your hair; and do you recall that you always preferred Mr. Comte to do your hair after he set you up on the board he suspended between the arms of his chair and mostly because he would put you at ease with his quiet, personal conversation, and very personal and friendly questions about yourself and your family.

"Sweet memories for me for sure. And he never forgot my name."

Ian Macdonald"Just fond recollections of the very pleasant distinguished man in the third chair. My recollection was he was a great and sympathetic listener."

Charlie Purich
"Ritual to get a haircut there. There were usually two barbers and back then you would request who you wanted. (And wait for that barber.) Mr Comte specialized in brush-cuts and he had this special goo he would add after the cut was done. Kept your brushcut on end for at least a few days.

"Also recall the board they would place across the seat for young patrons. Can't recall too many conversations between the patrons or barbers because the shop was a sombre place--you went there for a haircut or shave- period. Not too many smiles--just business!

"The shave was a hot towel affair and then out came the straight razor. Glad I didn't have whiskers back then!
"Back then you could get a haircut, have a milk shake at the Model Grill, get a mickey at the LCBO and play a game of pool upstaris at the pool hall, all in the same hour!!!"

David McMillan on Mr. Lucas
"Right off the top of my head I remember his chair was the one closet to the window and when he was in the process of giving you a haircut he'd forever be waving as people walked by on the sidewalk. I was also fascinated by the shaving procedure .. the head over the sink, the towel wrapped around the face and the straight razor that he periodically used to hone its edge."

Merrick Goldstein
"One Sunday my dad (J.G. 'Jiggs' Goldstein) decided to give me a haircut cause mom had been given a pair of little hand clippers. I dont remember how old I was but old enough to realize what a poor job he had done. I waited on the step of the barber shop before school til Mr. Comte opened up and told him what had happened. As I recall , Mr. Comte in a very polite manner suggested that my father should not quit his job at Collins Store."

Dr W.R. "Bill" Pellow
"The barber shop had changed drastically by the time I was going there for my monthly haircut. Different from the pioneering days when I was a boy going not to Brownlee's barber shop but to Comte's barber shop. . In the early days when Mr. Comte would have just arrived in Chapleau the barber shop was the transitional shop that was frequently used by the lumberjacks.
"My Dad relayed the stories that the lumberjack would arrive in town after a full winter in the bush and head directly to Smith and Chapples and buy "birds eye" Mackinaw pants , new knee length
boots and socks and new shirt head to the barber shop where he had a hair cut, a steam towel hot shave and shampoo and in the back room there was a tub where he could bathe. He cut the bottom 12 inches off his pants and was supplied brown paper to wrap his old clothes in and he changed into a clean shaven respectful citizen.This package of old dirty clothes were burnt in a barrel in the back yard. Then he headed next door and remained in the bar and stayed drunk, until he was broke. Then headed back to the lumber camp to sign on for another season. A
small sad circle of frivolity and waste. Truth or fiction.

"As a young boy I always wanted Mr. Comte to cut my hair. He was a gentile man and always of even temperament. His chair was the furthest from the front door. Herb Lucas 's chair was next to the window where he could wrap on the window with his comb with one hand and keep on cutting with the other. Then there were two more chairs that were manned by the "transient " barbers.
"Mr. Comte had a muscle ball on his right forearm that was created by hours of using the scissors with his arms elevated. He always cut your hair as you wished, or as directed from afar by your parents.

"During the war years he could be found each Friday in the basement of the town hall playing his violin accompanied by Mrs. Stancil (Pelllow) Rose on piano and Jim Broomhead on sax. The music was music of a generation past but a delight to dance to. An orchestra to dance to even a three piece orchestra was a treat for any Chapleau teenager.
"It is amazing how one small statured man can bring back memories of a life time ago, memories of deportment, dignity, grace and talent." My email is mj.morris@live.ca

1 comment:

Paul Morin said...

It's a small world indeed. After moving to Sudbury from Chapleau I finally tracked down an exceptional barber. Frank Vaillancourt, ironically, was Alf's nephew. He would tell me about working in his shop in Smith & Chapple's when he starting barbering. Frank cut hair for over 50 years and our Chapleau connection fueled most of our chit chats.

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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