ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Buried in the basement of the Minnesota State Office Building, a barbershop with a rich history is abuzz with customers again as the pandemic eases and more return work at the Capitol complex.

“I think we’re on the right track,” said Josh Kirkpatrick, owner of Capitol Barbers. “Things are starting to open up a little bit more. More people are starting to come back on campus, so we’re headed in the right direction. But there’s still plenty of room to regrow or continue to grow.”

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The State Office Building, just to the west of the State Capitol, opened to the public again late last month and more state employees are working in-person, at least part of the time. Those workers are a huge part of Capitol Barbers’ business, Kirkpatrick said, and it’s starting to see customers who hadn’t come by in two years.

Josh Kirkpatrick, owner of Capitol Barbers, trims a client’s hair on April 11 at his shop in the basement of the State Office Building, where it’s been located since the early 1930s (credit: CBS)

He welcomes a new phase of the pandemic that looks more like normal.

“A barbershop atmosphere is such a social experience that I think we missed a lot,” he said.

But for as long as it’s been around, Kirkpatrick said it’s still a “hidden gem” unknown to many.

“It’s a word-of-mouth thing,” he said of his business. “One of the gentlemen I had come in had been working on the Capitol campus for eighth years and had no ideas there was a barbershop.”

A photo of the second state capitol building in 1886 (credit: The Minnesota Historical Society)

Rich history of barbering at Minnesota Capitol 

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Kirkpatrick bought the business from his father in 2016, but its historical roots run deeper. The barbershop has been at the current location since the building opened to the public 90 years ago.

But records compiled by Minnesota Historical Society indicate there was a barber at the Capitol long before that in the second capitol building, completed in 1883. It was operational before constructing the third and current capitol building in 1905.

“The basement contained offices for the state historical society, supply rooms, a barbershop, and restrooms,” an entry from the historical society reads.

Minnesota was also the first state in the country to approve a barber licensing law in 1897.

“The long history of barbering and having it in my family, too — and my dad being a part of that history — it’s kind of a fun lineage to say I’m included in that story, the Minnesota story of barbering,” Kirkpatrick said.

The Minnesota State Capitol Building in use today is the third capitol in Minnesota. The first burned down and the second one, completed in 1883, housed a barbershop, according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s records. It’s unclear if there was another barbershop in the current capitol building, finished in 1905, before Capitol Barbers opened in the State Office Building (credit: CBS)

A newspaper article from the St. Paul Globe in 1901 said Walter Gassoway “shaved four governors” as a Capitol barber. Gassoway is quoted as opening a shop near the end of Gov. Knute Nelson’s last term, which ended in 1895.

It’s part of the reason why Kirkpatrick believes his business can be traced back to one of the oldest — if not the oldest — barbershop in the country. Barbershops elsewhere have also laid claim to that title.

“I think sharing that news and the opportunity for more people to learn about us — I think this shop easily could be around another 100 years,” he said.

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There’s a gap in the records from 1905 and the 1930s and it’s unclear if there was a barber working in the current Capitol after it was built. A librarian with the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library said she couldn’t find any records to provide clues to any operation during that time.

Caroline Cummings