Gooding Tavern, circa 1900. Southwest corner of State Road 9 and US 40 (Historic National Road). George Knox's Barbershop was located here.
By: Bob Hunt, After the war, George was looking for a place to settle down and call home. Despite growing up in the South, he found himself driving a horse and wagon for the Union Army as a Teamster during the conflict. By the end of the war, he had seen quite a bit of the country, and yearned to start a new life in the North, where he sensed there was greater opportunity for the future. But where to go? One local lore has it that during his travels, George met men who came from all over, but after knowing some soldiers from Indiana, he thought that they were some of the nicest fellows, and so decided to cast his lot there. He lived first briefly in Indianapolis, then helped to start a barbershop in Kokomo, before moving to Greenfield to start his own business. The bustling commerce and growth of communities along the National Road undoubtedly played a large role in his decision.
George had very limited means, and not unlike many of the time, he could neither read nor write much beyond his own name when he arrived in Greenfield. Nonetheless, he was very ambitious, and hopeful for the future. Despite humble origins and the devastations he had seen on the battlefront, George envisioned a great future for himself and his family. He believed that hard work and determination would be far more important for his future than current limitations, or the past. Had George been someone who relied on conventional wisdom, or lived his life according to expected social norms, he never would have come to Greenfield, or started his own business, but George was a different sort of man.
George started his business in an old tavern building right on the Historic National Road, near the intersection with today’s State Rd. 9, across from the courthouse. Today there is little documentation of how well George cut hair, or shaved his customers, however we do know that his barbershop in Greenfield was indeed a success. Although we can’t pinpoint all the reasons, we can infer that a significant factor was his personality. In an age before anyone could dream of Social Media, the neighborhood barbershop was the place for men to spread the news, rumors, and network, all mediated through the barber. By all accounts George had a way with people that led to success and influence throughout his life.
Although he never ran for any political office, George eventually became a formidable political force in Greenfield. So powerful was his network, and great his influence that he is credited with helping to get the very first Mayor elected when Greenfield became a city in 1876. This was no small task given that his chosen candidate was a political dark horse, who was initially not given much of a chance. George was determined that his candidate would carry the day however, because this person had done George a big favor, the only one in town willing to do so.
Of course, not all was serious business and politics in George’s barbershop. A large part of the social experience and appeal at barbershops of the day was a place to exchange jokes, tell stories and tall tales, and generally have a good time. George had a good friend who spent a lot of time at the barbershop, a young sign painter he called “Bud”. Bud’s Father had come home wounded from the war, both physically, and psychologically. He had provided a good living for his family before the war, but was never able to fully recover afterward, and the family’s finances spiraled steadily downward until they lost their home, and ended up in severe financial difficulties. George liked Bud, and gave him the opportunity to come into his shop and make pocket money painting shaving mugs for customers. At that time, each customer needed their own personalized shaving mug, to prevent the spread of skin diseases like “barbers itch”. Bud was a lot more than just a shaving mug and sign painter though. He had a real gift for telling stories and jokes, keeping the customers (and likely George) entertained for hours. During the times when there were no customers in the shop, Bud loved to make fun and imitate some of the more colorful local folk, making up outlandish stories and telling them in a voice that copied various dialects and mannerisms of their favorite customers. George would play along and pretend to interrogate Bud as to all the “facts” of his made-up stories, until they would tire of the game, or collapse in mutual laughter.
George’s accomplishments and influence in Greenfield were all the more remarkable, given that he frequently went strongly against the grain of popular public opinion and thought. More than just his relationship with Bud, George developed a reputation as a strong supporter of the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. In the years after the war, there were large numbers of African Americans attempting to migrate to northern states for a better life. Not infrequently trains would arrive in Greenfield with dozens of ex-slaves, who had boarded with almost no money, little food, and inadequate clothing, just hoping that they could find some opportunity in the North. George’s support for these travelers was well known, and when such trains arrived, word would quickly reach the barbershop that help was needed. George spent his own money, and also solicited the sympathies and support of other locals and businesses for his humanitarian missions. To say that his mission to help feed and clothe the traveling migrants on the train was unpopular in Greenfield is a huge understatement. One local grocery owner famously suffered a mysterious and devastating fire the very night after he provided free provisions to a large group that George was trying to help. Many others reportedly refused to get involved, based on threats and peer pressure.
George’s story didn’t end in Greenfield. Ever the forward looking and ambitious individual, he eventually left his Greenfield barbershop on the National Road for the big city of Indianapolis. There, he started an even larger and better barbershop, eventually owning an entire chain. In the process, he became very wealthy, and expanded the political influence and leadership he had first wielded in Greenfield on a much larger stage. In addition, he not only learned to read and write, but became so proficient and passionate about the power of the printed word, that he bought a newspaper, and turned it into a large regional publication with a national reputation and following.
Bud’s story didn’t end in Greenfield either. He eventually left George’s barbershop on the National Road to travel with a medicine show. His ability to entertain and attract potential customers with clever chalk drawings on the side of wagons, story-telling, and fiddle playing earned him the nickname of “The Hoosier Wizard” from his employer. He also enjoyed writing, and eventually found enough success that he was able to go back and re-purchase the Greenfield homestead on the National Road that his parents had lost to default years before. It would never be his primary residence, but forever a sanctuary and temporary respite from the pressures of life in Indianapolis, and the only property he ever owned. Bud was just his nickname of course. His Father named him after his most admired person, an early Governor of Indiana, James Whitcomb. Today, you probably know him better by his full given name, James Whitcomb Riley, the most celebrated and famous poet of the 19th Century in America.
As for George, his full name was George Knox. Knox was African American, and enslaved in Tennessee, until he was able to cross over the lines during the war and reach the Union side. There he found employment as a teamster until the end of the war. It was Knox’s wife who eventually taught him to read and write. In 1884 he moved to Indianapolis and opened the first of his eventual chain of barbershops. In 1892 he purchased the Indiana Freeman newspaper, the first illustrated newspaper in the country owned by an African American. Under his ownership and leadership, the paper went from a Democratic leaning publication to one that strongly supported and advocated Knox’s Republican causes. The paper under Knox achieved a national circulation and won critical acclaim for its stories and publications until its demise in the 1920’s. In his 1896 autobiography, published as a series of articles in the paper in 1896, George Knox advocated hard work and dedication as the way to achieve success. He became one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of his day in Indianapolis, and a leading figure in the Republican Party until his death in 1927.