Eagle River loses a true cut-up
Hilda Miller, whose sharp scissors, sharper wit and a passion for the outdoors turned her Eagle River barber shop into a rollicking community landmark, died on Feb. 28, 2012 at her cabin in Big Lake. She was 70.
Miller had struggled with a chronic illness for years, according to her son, Richard Kirk. She spent much of 2012 in Arizona, but returned to her adopted home of Alaska shortly before her death.
“She wanted to be at home with her puppies,” Kirk said of his mother’s Shih Tzu’s, “Thumper,” “Flower,” and “Bambi.”
She decorated Hilda’s Barber Shop in the Eagle River Shopping Center with dozens of mounted fish and game animals. Naturally, the shop became a gathering place for local outdoorsmen and women looking to swap fish tales.
“She loved just having a place for people to come in and talk and tell stories,” Kirk said.
Miller was known as a prankster and someone who loved a good joke, said Monty Howes, who attended Alaska Barber College with Miller in the 1960s.
Howes recalled a time when Miller — then just a student — was tasked shaving a nervous gentleman with a straight razor. Howes said the young woman went through the process of meticulously lathering up her customer. As she took the razor in hand, she paused for effect.
“Then she turned away and made the sign of the cross,” he recalled.
Hilda Evans was born at home on Oct. 1, 1941 to Ellen and Arthur Evans in the tiny coal-mining town of Wilsondale, West Virginia. One of nine siblings, Hilda demonstrated a restless, carefree spirit from an early age, said her brother, James Evans.
“She’s always been outside,” Evans said.
When she was 16, Miller married her first husband, Millard Kirk, and moved with him to Ohio. Two years later, the couple headed for Alaska, where Hilda studied to become a barber. They had two sons, Richard and Cecil, who both remain in Alaska. The couple later divorced, and Hilda was married three more times — most recently to Daniel Miller, who preceded her in death.
She was also preceded in death by her parents.
She is survived by her sons, Richard, of Big Lake and Cecil, of Anchorage; two grandsons; two brothers and a sister.
Hilda’s first barber shop was on Fort Richardson. She opened her first location in Eagle River in 1979, and moved into the iconic shop in the Eagle River Shopping Center in 1989.
Linda McClendon cut hair alongside Hilda at the shop for 23 years. McClendon said Hilda’s attracted a loyal clientele of hunters and fishermen looking to hear where the hot spots were.
“They loved to listen to her stories,” McClendon said.
Richard Kirk — himself a barber who now owns the shop — said his mother would frequently abandon her post behind the cutting chair at a moment’s notice if she got an offer to head into the Alaska wilderness.
“She’d just shut the shop down and leave me there,” Kirk said.
Often, Hilda would fly off with Chugiak’s Buck Kuhn for jaunts in Kuhn’s Piper Super Cub across Cook Inlet.
“We was buddies,” Kuhn said. “She was like a sister to me.”
On one such trip, Kuhn said the silver salmon were biting so good that Hilda didn’t want to leave. But they were out of bait. Kuhn said Hilda figured they could use fresh-caught salmon roe — if they could only figure out a way to attach the eggs to the hook. So she improvised.
“She pulled her britches up to her knees and said, ‘Cut me a piece of them panty hose,’” Kuhn recalled.
After Kuhn obliged, Hilda proceeded to use the hose to affix the eggs to a treble hook and cast out into the stream.
“It wasn’t three or four minutes before she had another silver on,” he said.
Kuhn said Hilda’s prowess in the outdoors rivaled anyone’s.
“She was one of the fishingest women I ever met,” he said. “She could out-fish anybody I ever saw.”
Kuhn said Hilda cut his hair for 35 years without charging a dime.
“She’d just say, ‘Put some gas in that Super Cub and let’s go fishin’,” he said.
He said the shop’s outdoor-friendly theme “was like a magnet pulling in the sportsmen up here.”
Kuhn said Hilda’s was always a place locals could go to feel like they were among family.
“People would stop in there — and I was one of ‘em — that didn’t necessarily need to get a haircut,” he said. “We’d just sit and visit and tell hunting and fishing stories and see what the latest thing was going on out on the creek banks.”
Kuhn said Hilda had a soft spot for children, giving each a sucker after a haircut. And, he said, she often went out of her way to help friends in need.
“She was a precious person,” he said.
Kuhn said he visited Hilda for the final time at her cabin shortly before her death.
“I said, ‘When you get to heaven, find us some good fishin’ holes up there,” he said.
Despite her illness, Hilda continued to cut hair up until October 2011. While she may have been well known for her big personality, it was also her skill with the scissors that kept generations of customers coming back, McClendon said.
“She could do a picture-perfect tapered cut,” McClendon said.
Richard Kirk said some of Hilda’s clients grew up in her barber chair. One afternoon, he said his mother was going on about a particularly ornery child who used to give her fits. One of the men listening to the tale stopped her in mid-sentence.
“Now Hilda, I wasn’t that bad,” the man said.
Kirk said his mother’s ashes will be spread at one of her favorite recreation spots near the Denali Highway this summer.
“She loved it up there,” he said.
He said he plans to keep Hilda’s just as it is — an old-school barber shop where haircuts and good-natured conversation about hunting and fishing go hand-in-hand.
“I’m not going to change a thing,” he said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org