It was a quiet afternoon at Ray’s Barber Shop, tucked in a downtown mall of antique shops on St. Germain Street across from the courthouse. So Ray Opatz put down his newspaper and offered up a history lesson:
His grandfather, Alex, emigrated from Poland and hopped off the train in Royalton and started walking 6 miles west, across the Mississippi River, toward Bowlus. That was back in the late-1800s.
“He looked right out of Tom Sawyer with a stick and all his stuff tied up in a bandanna,” Ray said.
Alex met a farmer along the way and purchased a piglet.
“He told the farmer he was going to come back when he raised the hog and give it to him in exchange for his daughter, who was 15 or 16.”
Those were Ray’s grandparents. They had 13 kids. Ray’s dad, George, “was the second from the end.”
George worked the farm and lived until he was 91. Their 240 acres a mile and half north of Bowlus are still in the Opatz family, but they rent it out to a neighboring farmer. After all, farming isn’t for everyone. Never has been for all the Opatz offspring.
“Three of my father’s brothers — Roy, Sam and John — became barbers and so did their cousin, Jim.”
At 21, Ray bought out Uncle John in 1960 and renamed his shop Ray’s. He’s been cutting hair ever since. Haircuts still cost $11 and you can get a straightedge razor shave for $8.
“Some of these young guys come in and have never had a shave before,” Ray said, mystified.
He’s kept barbering “because no one else would hire me.”
The shop has moved six times within a few blocks downtown. It was next to a now defunct funeral home. And underneath a gay bar.
“That’s gone, too,” he said.
The late-1960s, with young men growing hair long during the Vietnam War, proved to be a tough time.
“The goll dang Beatles raised hell for barbers,” Ray said.
Ray and his wife, Renee, have three kids, six grandchildren and a couple of great-grandchildren.
That’s not all he’s proud of.
There’s a photo hanging over his barber chair of Ray hoisting a 27-inch walleye he caught a couple of summers ago on Lake Mille Lacs.
“Had to throw it back,” he said.
That’s because it was an inch shy of the 28-inch keeper limit.
“I tried stepping on its stomach to get it up to 28, but that didn’t work,” he said, cracking a wry smile.
Just then, the phone rang. Not a smartphone, but an old one mounted on the wall.
It was one of his regulars, scheduling a haircut.
“We’ll see you tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 then.”