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History of Plumbing

Living Legends: The History Of Our Nation’s Oldest Plumbing Companies

July 12, 2000
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In what other industry is the term "family business" so common? Plumbing and mechanical contracting companies have been the birthright of generations, leading sons and daughters in their fathers’ and grandfathers’ footsteps. It is a legacy for which offspring study throughout their lives, carrying tools on Saturday jobs, studying the intricacies of a complex boiler problem, watching and learning with the awesome knowledge that one day the business would be theirs.

It is becoming less and less uncommon to encounter 100-year anniversary stamps on letterheads from plumbing companies. Many can brag third-, fourth- and occasionally fifth-generation ownership with young children in the background targeted for president number six.

Like M.J. Daly & Sons, Randolf, Mass., which has passed from father to sons to nephew and is now run by M.J. Daly’s great-great grandson, 113 years after he opened his shop.

There is even a company in Hanover, Pa. run by seventh- and eighth-generation sons of its original founder. The Diller Wierman Co. was founded by Michael Bargelt, who came to America in 1765, back when Indian raids were still a concern. He started a small coppersmithing business with his eight-year -old son that 216 years later is still alive and run by his great-great-great-great-grandson Michael Bargelt and his son Matthew.

The histories of these companies and others like them are woven with the tenacity of young immigrants determined to build a business they can pass on to their children. It is the stuff of the American dream, that so many have put their faith in over the years.

Michael Young was just seven years old when his parents brought him to Chicago from Germany. Overcoming the cultural and language barriers, he studied the plumbing business and opened his own company when he was 28. Today that business, Bert C. Young & Sons Co., is run by his grandson and great-grandson in the sprawling Chicago suburbs that were once wild prairie, when Michael Young was alive.

Joseph Wittig came to America on a converted Crimean war ship in 1857 to build the Joseph Wittig Co. which still exists in Milwaukee today.

When a company’s history dates back to dirt roads and horse drawn wagons, you are certain to find the take-on-the-world strength of a founder who was too young to see how many obstacles stood in his way. Ignoring the threat of potential failure, these men made successes of their companies, building legacies that would be inherited for generations to come.

In a country that has lived through wars, inflation and the Great Depression, survival for a business is a lifestyle fought for tooth and nail.

In honor of those that have lived through the good old days — and the not so good — we give you the oldest plumbing companies in the country.

Diller Wierman Inc.
Hanover, Pa.
Est. 1779

The East Coast holds the oldest and richest heritage of anywhere in the United States. It is the sight of the Boston Tea Party and Plymouth Rock. It’s where the first cities were built and it is where the Diller Wierman Co. was established more than 200 years ago. Diller Wierman is the oldest plumbing company found in the United States. And not only has it been in business since 1779, it is run today by the founder’s great-great-great-great-grandson, Michael Bargelt Wierman with the help of his son, Matthew, who holds the PM title for "most generations of shoes to fill."

It all started in 1765 when 25-year-old Michael Bargelt came to this country from Germany. In 1770 he crossed the Susquehanna River and settled in what would eventually be known as Hanover, Pa. There wasn’t much habitation there — or anywhere — in those days. Dense hickory forests covered the land that was then known as McAllister’s Town, named after the farmer who first settled it. There were only 35 homes in the city limits and Indian attacks were a common threat. McAllister’s Town was a trading center back then, where craftsmen could supply farmers and towns people with all the necessities.

Folklore says Bargelt built a small log cabin, without doors or a chimney, on the site of St. Matthews Church on West Chestnut Street. He lived there until 1777, when he and his wife bought lot 15 on Carlisle Street in the original plan of Hanover, from Colonel Richard McAllister. The deed specified Bargelt must build a house within two years, of log, stone or brick whose dimensions were not less than 18 feet square with a brick chimney at the rear. He paid 50 pounds, Pennsylvania currency which was the equivalent of $150.

Bargelt built a house of brick and worked from there as a carpenter. Two years later he and his eight-year-old son Jacob, began operations fabricating copper stills — most of which were used to make whiskey. They worked this way for many years, and in 1811, Jacob purchased the home/business from his father for $900.

Jacob continued working as a coppersmith and tinner until 1830 when his son John succeeded him in the business. Like his father and grandfather, John also stayed with the business until retirement, handing it down to his son Louis.

Louis and his father were partners in the company for many years. By then, the businesses services had expanded to include plumbing heating and oil burning installations — a sign of the changing needs of the nation. Together they worked from the brick home at 34 Carlisle St. where both men had been born. Louis continued there alone after his father’s retirement in 1885.

In the years that followed, Louis served in the Civil War for the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and was engaged in the battle at Gettysberg. His name appears on the Tablet of his regiment on the Pennsylvania Monument on the historic field.

Two years prior to his death in 1912, his son George joined the business. Louis worked until the day he died, then George, following the footsteps of tradition, took over the business. He ran it alone until 1928 when he was killed in an automobile accident, and the task of keeping the company going fell to his wife Emma and their daughter Jeanne. The two women kept the company afloat in an era that frowned on a woman in any business, especially plumbing. But two years later they were forced to let go of more than a century of history and sell Bargelt & Son.

Newspaper headlines shouted "Bargelt Business to Change Hands: Plumbing Establishment Conducted By The Same Family for 151 Years is Sold to Diller P. Wierman." It was the first break in the ancestral line since Michael Bargelt started the company, building whiskey stills in an era when outhouses were a luxury.

But, the ancestral line was destined to be repaired, and so it was when Jeanne Bargelt married Diller Wierman, returning the business to its ancestral blood line. Jeanne was a Hood College graduate and worked in the business with her husband for many years. They stayed at the Carlisle house until 1947, when they built a new building in the company’s present location, 20-24 Park Ave. During that same year the firm was incorporated as Diller Wierman Inc.

In 1958 Jeanne and Diller’s son, Michael Bargelt Wierman, became a partner in the business. Diller remained active in the company until his death in 1986 at the age of 83.

Today Michael is president and treasurer and his wife Hazel is secretary. The business includes plumbing, hydronic heat, HVAC and sheet metal work for residential and commercial jobs. When Michael’s son Matthew graduated from Penn State, he also joined the company’s sheet metal business. Matthew makes the eighth generation of Bargelt ancestors to be involved in the family business. From whiskey stills to hydronic heat systems the Bargelt men — and women — forged a path through history, leaving their mark on Hanover and an industry that has never witnessed such longevity before.

Buckingham Routh Co.
New Haven, Conn.
Est. 1854

The history of the Buckingham Routh Co. is almost as old as New Haven itself. Their histories are interwoven, each growing and expanding in the shadow of the other. Signs of the original company’s work in steam heat are still visible in the modern city’s older districts.

Originally the New Haven Steam Heating Co., Buckingham Routh is the oldest plumbing and heating firm in Connecticut and one of the oldest in continuous operation in the country. Its beginning dates back to 1854, when the Civil War was ending and Abraham Lincoln was still president. New Haven had a population of 49,200 people and most of the residential area was located along the waterfront east of the railroad that had gone in only a few years earlier.

Homes and commercial buildings in those days were heated by steam which was piped under the streets through wooden mains to individual buildings. The New Haven Steam Heating Co. provided the central steam and the connections where supplies and returns entered and exited the old buildings. These can still be seen in the Wooster and Chapel Street areas of the city. The company also manufactured boilers and flat radiators that were marketed nationwide and are still in use in some of the country’s oldest homes and estates.

Plans to pave the city’s dirt packed streets made it necessary to replace all of the existing steam mains in 1895. Times were changing and, recognizing the trend toward integral heating plants, the company turned its sights in a new direction. While continuing to manufacture its line of boilers and radiators, the firm changed its name to the New Haven Heating and Plumbing Co., moved to a larger facility and added contracting to its list of operations. The company was soon recognized as one of the first to install modern heating systems in the city.

When the company entered the contracting business, its founder, James Shearlock brought in his nephew, Arthur Thorpe as the heating engineer, and Thomas Routh and Alfred Buckingham to take charge of plumbing operations and sheet metal work.

On May 6, 1896, just after Shearlock died, the three men incorporated the business under Connecticut law as the Buckingham Routh Co. Thorpe, Buckingham and Routh are all listed as equal share holders, however only two names were listed in the corporate name.

As the new century began, the contracting business expanded, and manufacturing was phased out. By 1922 all manufacturing activities were discontinued and the firm moved again, to Grove Street, a former home which had been purchased the year before. The previous homeowner ran a malleable iron works shop that manufactured stoves. An outbuilding at the rear of the property had been his workshop and storage area, so few renovations were required. The business remained at that location for over 60 years, until urban redevelopment caused the firm to move to its present location at 20 Goodwin St. in New Haven.

Buckingham and Routh ran the company together until the early ’30s when Buckingham died. When Routh died soon after, his wife took over the business running it close to bankruptcy before Thorpe decided to take an active role in its management. He stayed in charge until his death in 1950, leaving the company to Edmond Taylor.

Taylor later left the company to Robert Grenon in 1977 who stayed only four years before leaving the business to its current president, James Petrillo Jr.

Petrillo was 17 years old when he first came to work for Buckingham Routh in 1946. He had just graduated high school and his father encouraged him to join the company where he was superintendent. So, he began as an apprentice and worked his way up to president in 1981. Next year marks his 50th with the company.

The Buckingham Routh company was never passed from father to son. Each successor proved his value through hard work instead of a gene pool — maybe that’s why they are such a success.

Downey Inc.
Milwaukee, Wisc.
Est. 1863

Downey Inc. has been building industrial furnaces since the industrial revolution. Hazes Mooers was a young man working for the E.P. Allis Co. of Milwaukee back in the mid 1800s. At that time, low-pressure steam heating was gaining popularity and Mooers saw that as an opportunity. He went to his boss, Edward Allis, who agreed to back Mooers’ venture to capitalize on the new steam heat systems. With Allis’ money, Mooers set up a plant in Milwaukee and began to manufacture boilers and radiators.

In 1880, William Kavanaugh Downey joined Mooers and his son in the business and by 1888 he was a partner in the firm.

By 1896, both Mooers and his son, Benjamin, had passed away leaving the company to Downey. He continued to run the business alone and in 1910, he changed the company name to Downey Heating and Supply Co.

After his death in 1921, the business was inherited by his sons Paul, Frank and Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh decided to pursue a career in securities and left his brothers to run the family business. The two men worked together in their fathers’ business until 1945. Paul remained involved in company operations until 1969, but in 1965 he was succeeded as president by his son, Paul J. Downey who changed the company name to Downey Co.

In 1969, Downey made the decision to sell the family business so he hired Kenneth Coffman to help him do it. Coffman engineered the sale of Downey Co. in 1970 to Azco Inc. In 1975, Coffman was named president of Azco Downey.

In 1983, the mechanical contracting firm was purchased by employees and became known as Downey Inc. Coffman remained in charge until 1985 when he was succeeded by his son, Greg Coffman, who joined the business 15 years earlier as a laborer. He remains president today.

Joseph Wittig Co.
Milwaukee, Wisc.
Est. 1865

On Aug. 14, 1995 the Joseph Wittig Co., Milwaukee, Wisc., will celebrate its 130th anniversary. This plumbing company, that existed before water closets were invented, has survived wars, the Great Depression and so many technological advancements Joseph Wittig himself would be amazed. It is run today by Ned Baldus, the great-grandson-in-law of Joseph Wittig and fourth generation president.

Wittig came to Milwaukee from Saxony on a converted Crimean war ship in 1857 when he was only 18 years old. In 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Wittig opened J.&F. Wittig Co., posting the second master plumber’s license ever issued from the Milwaukee water department over his door. He used a horse and cart to haul flat top sinks and lead wiping tools — some of which still exist and are on display at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

It was post Civil War days, when Indians still lived on the outskirts of Milwaukee and water closets were not yet the custom. Wittig did most of his work in lean-tos attached to the sides of buildings, and he ran gas piping to the light fixtures at finer homes. One of his fondest memories was the day he connected gas pipes to the crystal chandelier in the original Milwaukee County Courthouse.

"He was hoisted up in a bosin’s chair and held in place until he finished the job," said Baldus.

Four generations later, the company remains in the family. Joseph’s sons, Joseph Jr. and Frank, took the company over in 1910. They were later succeeded by sons-in-law Norbert Baldus, who joined the company in 1929, and Edward Baldus, who joined them in 1932. Edward’s son Ned, who is the current president of Joseph Wittig Co., came into the company in 1959 after graduating from Notre Dame University.

"It’s funny how much hasn’t changed," says Ned Baldus. "A lot of fittings, piping and materials cost about same as they did back then, it’s the labor that costs so much more."

While still a family-run company, Joseph Wittig Co. was sold to Peeper Electric Co. in November 1990. It is now considered a subsidiary of Peeper and once Ned retires, it will no longer be run by ancestors of the Wittig family.

Starbuck & Son Co.
Turner Falls, Mass.
Est. 1872

Walk through the warehouse of Starbuck & Son Co. and the ghosts of five generations are there to greet you. Doug Starbuck, fifth-generation owner and great-great-grandson of George Starbuck Sr., the company’s founder, runs the business from its original headquarters in Turner Falls, Mass.. It began in 1872, an era when people heated their homes with wood or coal burning stoves. George Starbuck Sr. started Starbuck & Co. as a stove and furnace maintenance service. They picked up customers’ stoves at the end of winter, cleaned them and stored them until it was time to turn the heat back on in the fall.

And, while Starbuck & Co.’s service offerings have changed with the times, signs of the original business still haunt the property, lingering in dusty piles of oddly shaped fittings and old black stoves.

There is an ancient pulley hanging from the second floor window that was used to haul stoves up for cleaning. It dangles over a weathered wooden shed that connects the original building to the "new" addition built when business started booming in 1888.

The scent of oil and metal mix with an old book store smell inside the office where ancient column radiators are fed with Honeywell Unique valves — one of the first products Honeywell ever produced. Hundred-year-old text books, many written by R.M. Starbuck, George Starbuck’s son, litter shelves and tumble out of boxes.

"We don’t like to throw things out," said Doug. Some of his warehouse stock dates back to 1910.

When paper mills started popping up all over the countryside, Doug’s ancestors saw an opportunity to make their fortune. In those days, the mills used steam and fast service was essential to meet deadlines. Starbuck & Co. courted the mills by offering immediate service because all of the parts were kept in stock. None of the other companies kept stock, so Starbuck won the business.

Even after the mills were gone, Starbuck & Co. continued to collect these parts, piling them in their storage space. Today, this historic clutter tells its own history of a heating era long forgotten. There are bins of antique, oddly sized fittings, radiator traps, brass pressure gauges and lead cooking pots scattered throughout the warehouse/museum. These ancient relics are a monument to the great history that brought miracles like radiant heat and central air.

Starbuck Co. is alive with 123 years of memories, but it may not have too many more. Doug is the last keeper of the history in the Starbuck family. The passion for plumbing did not continue in his children.

So if you want to take a trip back in time and you happen to be near Turner Falls, Mass., stop into Starbuck & Co. It’s right in the center of town, you can’t miss it.

J.F. Ahern Co.
Fond du Lac, Wisc
Est. 1880

In striving for excellence, J.F Ahern Co. must be a reliable, cost effective and performance-oriented member of the construction team.

By working with and not just for our customer, and by utilizing our innovative, experienced management team of recognized industry leaders, J.F. Ahern Co. provides construction solutions to our customer’s mechanical and fire protection needs.

This commitment to excellence — a vision shared by all employees of the company — assures the success of our customer’s projects and the continued success of the J.F. Ahern Co.

It is this business mission that made J.F. Ahern one of the largest, and longest lived family owned contractors in the business. Although David Ahern may not have written it quite that concisely back in 1880 when he opened D. Ahern & Son Sanitary Plumbing, Steam & Hot Water Heating, the commitment to excellence was a foundation that withstood two wars, the Great Depression and four generations of Aherns at the helm.

It all started at the company’s first shop on Main Street in Fond du Lac, Wisc. David Ahern saw his fledgling business grow rapidly as a result of his strict policies of offering customers the best in quality and service.

David’s son, John, continued his father’s work by forming the John F. Ahern Co. in 1921. Soon after, he was joined by his two sons, John and Thomas L. The firm grew under their command, expanding to meet the changing needs for more sophisticated mechanical installations.

John and Thomas managed the company until the early 1970s when John’s sons, John E. and David, took over, each holding 50 percent ownership.

In 1989, J.F. Ahern invited three key members of the management team to buy stock in the company, marking the first time in more than 100 years that someone not in the Ahern family owned part of this family legacy.

David has since sold his share of the stock, and Tripp Ahern, the fifth generation to join the business, became a shareholder. Today Tripp is the president and COO of the company that did $65 million in business 1995 and boasts 450 employees.

It’s a far cry from the little plumbing shop on Main Street, but if it weren’t for David Ahern’s commitment to his customers 115 years ago, J.F. Ahern Co. never would have made it to where they are today.

M.J. Daly & Sons Inc.
Waterbury, Conn.
Est. 1882

How many people know anything about what their great-great-grandfather did for a living? Thomas Dembinski knows because he is vice president of the company his great-great-grandfather started 115 years ago. Only back then, all M.J. Daly had was $300 and a dream, and today that dream is one the largest mechanical contracting firms in the United States.

M.J. Daly got started in the contracting business by accident. He was a flute player in South Norwalk, Conn., trying to make a living playing music. As a compromise, he got a job with the Cheney Mills silk corporation in Waterbury, Conn. It wasn’t exactly a musician’s dream, but he had to work in the factory in order to play in the company band.

Daly soon discovered he had more then just a talent for music. While assisting in the construction of a new addition on the silk plant, Daly was "discovered" by a foreman for the piping contractor Pitkin Brothers of Hartford. The foreman was so impressed with his work he offered Daly a job on the spot, for substantially more than he was making with Cheney. Daly accepted and, as he learned the trade, he rose through the ranks and became a foreman himself.

At that time, Waterbury was highly industrialized and growing rapidly but there was no local company capable of handling the steam and piping needs of its many brass manufacturing firms. So, a group of local businessmen approached Daly about starting a piping business and offered him the financial backing to get started.

Daly loved the idea but refused the money. He had $300 in the bank which, he said, was ample to get him going. He moved his family from Manchester to Waterbury and went into business.

Daly worked in his company for 24 years, building the foundation for what would become a powerful force in the plumbing industry.

Today, the focus of business is still on plumbing and heating but the company has expanded to include a fire protection division, and service, a wholesale house for valves, fittings and sheet metal.

"The business was started and driven for many years by plumbing and heating," says Jan Dembinski, great-great-grandson. "But fire protection has come on strong and will continue to be profitable."

When M.J. Daly died in 1906 he was succeeded by his sons, E.J. and J.M. Daly, who served as vice president and secretary after incorporation of the firm in 1902. In 1954, M.J. Daly of the third generation became president. In 1958, E.J. Daly Jr. was made chairman of the board and E.J. Daly III became president. Today Jan Dembinski, nephew of E.J. Daly III, is president and his son Paul Dembinski is vice president. They represent the fifth generation of Daly’s to prosper in a business that all began because their great-great-grandfather wanted to be in the company band.

W.V. Egbert & Co.
Newark, N.J.
Est. 1885

William V. Egbert established W.V. Egbert with his son John in 1885, when American industry was just beginning. Its big ticket item in those days were copper-lined, wooden bathtubs and marble sink basins, a long way from the super synthetic materials used for todays sinks and tubs.

The father and son team drove horse drawn wagons and installed lead pipe to convey water and waste. But the growing demand for indoor sanitary equipment at that time proved an excellent opportunity for Egbert & Co. The business quickly prospered and by the turn of the century was expanding and building branch offices.

Unfortunately, William and his son were not around to see their company grow. Both men died in 1892 and the business was taken over by DeWitt Cook, with the help of his young son, DeWitt Jr., who started as office boy and grew to eventually take the company over.

DeWitt Jr. had an eye on the future, and in the early 1900s had all of the horse drawn trucks replaced with motorized Packards and sold off the stables. He also opened a branch office in neighboring Morristown and built a warehouse in Newark.

When DeWitt Jr. died, in 1927, C.F. Rothfuss took over adding an additional branch in East Orange. He managed the company through the war years when tons of supplies were diverted to army camps and naval installations. But it all paid off. When the war ended, the housing shortage created a swell of business that carried the company through the 1960s.

Rothfuss died in 1955 and his son, Jack, took over until 1957 when he was succeeded by C.E. Howard.

Until 1990, the company was run by William B. McMullin who first started working for Egbert in 1940. He was elected president of the company in 1982 and continued to support the notion of quality service that was established by William Egbert 110 years ago, until he died in 1990.

The quality service idea continues through his son, Wayne McMullin who is general manager of Egbert, and the company’s most recent president, Robert McLean. William V. Egbert established W.V. Egbert with his son John in 1885, when American industry was just beginning. Its big ticket item in those days were copper-lined, wooden bathtubs and marble sink basins, a long way from the super synthetic materials used for todays sinks and tubs.

The father and son team drove horse drawn wagons and installed lead pipe to convey water and waste. But the growing demand for indoor sanitary equipment at that time proved an excellent opportunity for Egbert & Co. The business quickly prospered and by the turn of the century was expanding and building branch offices.

Unfortunately, William and his son were not around to see their company grow. Both men died in 1892 and the business was taken over by DeWitt Cook, with the help of his young son, DeWitt Jr., who started as office boy and grew to eventually take the company over.

DeWitt Jr. had an eye on the future, and in the early 1900s had all of the horse drawn trucks replaced with motorized Packards and sold off the stables. He also opened a branch office in neighboring Morristown and built a warehouse in Newark.

When DeWitt Jr. died, in 1927, C.F. Rothfuss took over adding an additional branch in East Orange. He managed the company through the war years when tons of supplies were diverted to army camps and naval installations. But it all paid off. When the war ended, the housing shortage created a swell of business that carried the company through the 1960s.

Rothfuss died in 1955 and his son, Jack, took over until 1957 when he was succeeded by C.E. Howard.

Until 1990, the company was run by William B. McMullin who first started working for Egbert in 1940. He was elected president of the company in 1982 and continued to support the notion of quality service that was established by William Egbert 110 years ago, until he died in 1990.

The quality service idea continues through his son, Wayne McMullin who is general manager of Egbert, and the company’s most recent president, Robert McLean.

Ferguson Plumbing & Heating
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Est. 1889

Ferguson Plumbing & Heating Co., is a two man plumbing shop just outside of Philadelphia. If you call there, chances are you’ll get Lawrence Ferguson on the phone since that’s the name of both of the men who work there. Lawrence L. (the father) and Lawrence C. (the son) run the business together just as all the Lawrence Fergusons before them did. And so the knowledge, as well as the company, is passed from generation to generation.

Lawrence C. is the fourth in a long line of only sons to take over the company that was started by Isaac B. Thorn in 1889. The original Lawrence Ferguson worked for Thorn in his shop at 2446 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia. Lawrence took over the company in 1916 when Thorn retired, changing the name from I.B. Thorn Plumbing, Gas Fitting and Drainage, to L. L. Ferguson Plumbing Co. It was the beginning of a legacy.

He started with a horse and cart and a push cart not much bigger then a child’s wagon. In 1920, instead of adding a truck, L. Ferguson decided to give the company a little flair. He bought a motorcycle with a sidecar that he removed, replacing it with a giant tool box. He painted "Lawrence L. Ferguson, Successor to I.B. Thorn Plumbing, Heating, Range Work, 2446 Ridge Ave." on the side of the box and used it as his service truck.

"He probably just wanted a motorcycle and this was the only way his father would let him have one," said Lawrence C. of his great-grandfather. It obviously worked. The business continued to be successful, and in 1927 Lawrence bought a real truck. His son, Lawrence Jr., came into the business not long after that, and in 1936, Lawrence Sr. passed the company to him.

Lawrence Jr. continued conducting business into the 1950s, surviving the Great Depression. When his son, Lawrence III was old enough, he joined his father and eventually took the business over in 1959.

Lawrence III is still with the company. His son, Lawrence C., joined him as a partner in 1982 when he was 25-years-old, and became sole owner in 1993. But the two men continue to work together in the business.

Ferguson Plumbing is no longer on Ridge Avenue, where it stood for more than 100 years. Lawrence C. and his father decided to move to Bala Cynwyd, Pa. when the urban neighborhood got too dangerous, but the business is the same. "Four Generations of Quality Service" is proudly displayed on their letterhead.

"I am really proud that we are still in business," says Lawrence C. "We’re definitely one of the oldest because there really wasn’t any indoor plumbing before that."

C.A. Edson Co.
Benton, Pa.
Est. 1890

A letter written by Frank Y. Edson, fourth-generation proprietor of C. A. Edson Co.

"A View From Here" The Fourth Generation

Scattered throughout my office and my mother’s house are the remnants (old photos, letters and business records) of 105 years and four generations of this plumbing and heating service business. Within these archives I am able to view the evolution of the industry and nation through the eyes of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather as they labored to serve the same community of customers and neighbors whose descendants I serve today.

Continuing this business into the 21st century has proved to be both a challenge and a blessing. There are a distinct set of hurdles to overcome as successor in a family business which occur over and above the challenges of non-family business ownership.

In generations before me, ownership changes took place without the need for lawyers, accountants, appraisals, financing and inventory counts. The bills of sale, prior to my time, consisted of the payment of one dollar, a handshake and a notary. The ownership changes were barely noticeable to those outside the family and business.

In 1988, after I had been working with my father off and on since age 12 and full time for three years, my brother Phil joined us. Two months later, Phil and I formed an equal partnership and bought the business from our father and Dad retired.

We implemented some major modifications in management technique as we brought the business to life and a renewed future. Our customer base felt the adjustment, where the once-acceptable system of barter had settled accounts past due, we were unable to take a bushel of tomatoes in exchange for repaired pipes. Customers quickly became familiar with updated billing, credit terms and collection methods while we continued the same high standard of service Dad’s customers had become accustomed to.

The next hurdle became clear to my brother and me in the six years that followed the formation of our partnership. Though we shared the same room as boys, we became increasingly unable to share a business as men. In the end, for as easy as it was to begin the fourth generation with a partnership, it proved to be equally as difficult to accept his letter of withdrawal from the partnership, buy out his share and continue on as sole proprietor.

We have a large family and the ending of the partnership did put a strain on some family relationships. Wisdom always comes at a price, and for me it has been the realization that I own and operate a business, and that is all it is. It has become important for me to separate the business from family relationships, to use the business to support my family and not as a means by which we stay family. It is not a predestined dream, or a genetic obligation or a duty assigned at birth. It is a business.

My aspirations and goals for my business are not what my father’s were for his, as his were not his father’s, nor his father’s father before him. We have managed to run it for 105 years, but we have always done so in our own individual way. It has not been an easy transition, I don’t think it was easy for any of us.

In the seven years since my father retired, the customer base has increased 600 percent. Gross sales last year were 650 percent above what they were in 1988. I believe that business management skills are paramount in today’s market. Being a good plumber will win and keep the customer, but being a good business manager is how to win and keep the business.

In my great-grandfather’s papers, I keep finding a phrase he used in advertisements, job quotes and correspondence. "Quality doesn’t cost, it pays." I think that phrase will start showing up in my work now, some 80 years later. In the reading of his papers I feel a growing kinship with him though he died the year before I was born. And so it goes to them all; my father, grandfather and great-grandfather. A kinship — from how things are so different to how much they have remained the same.

In the final analysis, I think it can be said that for a family business to span four or more generations, the individuals must be a little on the maverick side, willing to take some risk, willing to forge their own future founded on the solid ground of forefathers who forged their own way as well. As for me, I look back with gratitude and look forward with faith, hope and trust that someday remnants of me will be scattered throughout an office or house, and maybe, just maybe I’ll inspire a sense of kinship with a great-grandson I’ll never meet. At least, that’s my view from here.

Frank Y. Edson May 15, 1995

Bert C. Young & Sons Corp.
Bellwood, Ill.
Est. 1891

The story of Bert C. Young & Sons Corp. is built on a foundation of the American dream. It’s the story of a young man who survives the obstacles of being a stranger in a foreign world, and builds a company that would be passed through four generations of sons. Michael Young was born in Germany in 1861 and came to America when he was seven years old. They located in Chicago, where Michael grew up learning the plumbing trade with an old northside firm, the Gunderman Bros.

In 1879, Young’s family moved to what is today Melrose Park, a west Chicago suburb, back when it was still wild prairie. Michael and his father hunted quail and prairie chicken on the land where his great-grandsons today install some of the finest plumbing and heating systems in Chicago.

When Young was 30 years old, he formed a plumbing, gas fitting and steam heating business after dissolving a company he began with his wife’s brother two years earlier.

At that time, the United States was in the midst of the industrial revolution. Immigration was booming and Benjamin Harrison was in the middle of his second term as the 23rd president of the United States. The pioneer spirit was flourishing and Michael Young was truly a pioneer. He watched the great open prairie of Illinois populate with young families like his own. With the help of his son, Young saw his business flourish. Homes and public buildings were springing up everywhere, requiring the services of a skilled plumber.

When Bert Young took the reins of his father’s business in 1935, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Business failure was more common than success, yet Bert held on.

When World War II ended, Bert’s sons, Bert Jr. and Jim, returned from the service and joined their father in the business. At that time, the company moved to its present location in Bellwood, Ill. The post-war building boom was in full swing in Chicago and its suburbs, and Bert C. Young & Sons took full advantage.

Joined by Frank Jacobson, the family business increased its revenues and helped to build the miles of suburbs that surround Chicago. Homes, schools, factories, hospitals and government buildings all over Chicago’s south suburbs have the mark of the Young family.

James Walter Young is the vice president and the fourth generation of Young’s to maintain the family business. His father, James Young Sr., is CEO and James Michael Cullinane is the company’s president.

E.M. Duggan Co.
Canton, Mass.
Est. 1891

The E.M. Duggan company has been passed through three generations of fathers and sons who carry the history of the family name. E.M. Duggan Co. was founded in south Boston in 1891 by Edward M. Duggan, grandfather of today’s chairman of the board, Edward Duggan II.

Duggan came down from Worcester, Mass., to open the business when he was 27 years old.

"Boston was a prosperous area at that time, and most of the real-estate was controlled by large real-estate holders," said Edward Duggan II. "He came to Boston to work for them."

Edward Duggan opened the small shop on Shawmut Avenue doing plumbing repair and maintenance work for the homes in the area. It continued as a modest business, through the lean times of the 1930s.

Edward was joined in the business by his son William. When his son was 11 years old he started working as well. For several years all three generations of Duggan men worked together, learning from each other and teaching what they knew.

"I wanted to work whenever I could to make a little money," said Edward Duggan II. "My grandfather used to pay me a dollar a day. He was a very conservative man."

In 1942, Edward Duggan died and William took over the business. Edward II went into the service during that time, but returned to run the company with his younger brother, William, when his father died in 1948. Edward was 23 years old at the time.

Edward II served as company president from 1948 until 1991 — 43 years — and is still chairman of the board. During his tenure, he redirected the focus of Duggan Co. toward commercial and industrial work and the business grew from a five-man operation to a firm with more than 120 employees and is now located in Canton, Mass., 14 miles outside of Boston.

Today, Edward’s son-in-law, Vincent Petroni, is controller of the company and will continue to run the business with Paul Herrington, president, and Jim Murray, vice president.

Savage & Sons
Reno, Nev.
Est. 1892

There is history in a name — at least for the Savage family. Of the four generations of Savage men to run Savage & Son Plumbing Co., three were named Leonard Savage. The name, with the company, is passed through generations as a monument to the strength of family heritage.

The Savage family, which has been in business for more than 100 years, has earned a place in Nevada history. In 1859, Leonard Coates Savage, great-great-grandfather of the company’s current president, discovered a famous mine that bears his name on the outcroppings of the Gould & Curry mine in Virginia City, Nev. He eventually sold his claim to pursue other business ventures.

The entrepreneurial spirit that burned in Leonard Savage also shown in his son, Frank Charles Savage who was the founding partner in a Virginia City company, Genesy and Savage Plumbers and Tinners, and later opened his own plumbing company in Reno. It was a one man operation in the heart of Reno until he was joined by his son, Leonard Savage II in 1917. Together they grew the company, diversifying business and expanding their fleet. When Leonard III was old enough, they invited him to join the team in 1955.

Today, the company has more than 70 employees and a fleet of 20 trucks. Its services have expanded, but the company’s mission has stayed the same — to serve the customer. It’s the motto that will keep all future Savages in business. Leonard III is the latest president of Savage & Son. His sons Pete and Leonard IV have joined him as vice presidents of accounting and estimating.

"Family businesses are tricky and we’ve been lucky that in each generation someone has been willing to carry it on," says Leonard III. "The ideas change from one generation to the next, but as long as the commitment to the customer remains, I expect we’ll celebrate another 100 years."

DeTemple Co. Inc.
Portland, Ore.
Est. 1895

The year was 1895. The place was Portland, Ore. The industrial revolution had caught up with the far left corner of the country and Portland had never been busier. The port was bustling with ships loading the state’s bounty in agriculture and manufactured goods.

In the heart of the thriving city, the DeTemple tradition had begun. John DeTemple Sr. was working in the plumbing trade, having previously been employed by Clark Steamfitting and Donnerberg Plumbing as early as 1891. John DeTemple, Sr., who was raising a family of six boys and two girls on SE 13th Street, was sharing his residence with August Donnerberg, the second generation owner of Donnerberg Plumbing Co., founded in 1873. It was Donnerberg’s influence that led the DeTemples on their illustrious careers in the plumbing industry. Three of John’s sons, Fred, John Jr. and Walter, chose plumbing as a lifelong occupation, at various times hiring other DeTemple siblings to work here and there.

By 1907, the three DeTemple brothers had created a solid business and had a reputation for building intricate plumbing and steam heating systems for the architectural wonders that were springing up in the city’s center, and the marvelous new homes of Portland’s business and civic leaders.

"The best advertisement DeTemple Co. ever had was the city of Portland," said David B. Rice, MIS director, DeTemple Co. "Many of Portland’s offices, medical centers, schools and high-end housing have the DeTemple stamp."

Because of the floods and fire during that era, DeTemple Co. moved several times between 1907 and 1933, finally leasing a building at 615 NW Couch St. for its office and workshop. The company remained there more than 40 years.

Walter DeTemple ran the business alone for 20 years after his brothers’ deaths. He worked 10-hour days — six hours on Saturday — and often put in time on Sundays. Maybe that’s why he was said to know the insides of most downtown Portland buildings as well as he knew his own home.

"Plumbers from rival companies would call him if they needed to know something about the plumbing setup in a particular building, Walter always helped them out," said Ray Soika, former DeTemple shop foreman. "He was a book of knowledge."

It has been 100 years since John DeTemple Sr. started the DeTemple Plumbing and Heating tradition in Portland and watched his children follow in his footsteps. The company president now is Carl Rice Jr. whose father, Carl Rice Sr., succeeded Walter as leader of the company in 1973. Carl Rice, Sr. started working for the company in 1935 as the bookkeeper and was made a partner in 1945. His son came to DeTemple Co. in 1961 as an apprentice plumber working his way up through the trade. Today under Carl, Jr.’s guidance, DeTemple Co. has expanded into larger quarters and opened a branch office. An additional expansion is scheduled for the end of this year.

Corrigan Co. Mechanical Contractors
St. Louis, Mo.
Est. 1896

The Corrigan family tree has grown strong and tall in the last century, bringing Corrigan Co. with it. The company and family legend are intertwined, with every new generation of Corrigans, the company grew adding business as fast as parents added offspring.

John F. Corrigan, a 22-year-old journeyman plumber, opened John F. Corrigan: Plumber and Drainlayer in 1874 on the north side of St. Louis. It was a growing city, but business was not what you’d call "booming." John’s first month’s sales equaled $10, a paltry sum even back then.

But Corrigan’s fortunes changed when indoor plumbing starting catching on. It meant expanded business for Corrigan Co., which had all the sanitation equipment necessary to install indoor water closets and the gas piping for cooking and illumination. Service was expanded to plumbing, sewers and gas fitting around the turn of the century. It was this expansion that laid the foundation for the company that today prepares for its 100th year.

Business increased as Corrigan’s reputation as an honest business man spread, and he expanded Corrigan Co., building a larger shop with a single flat for his family next door.

In the mid-1930s, Corrigan secured a contract with Carter Carburetor, an auto parts manufacturing plant, for $6,000 worth of work. From there, business expanded to include heating and air conditioning work, and later process piping and fire protection. Corrigan bought a sheet metal shop, Lyon Sheet Metal Works Ltd., that would eventually become one of the largest sheet metal companies in the midwest.

As industrial contracts continued to grow, the need for expansion did as well. In effort to employ local pipe fitters and welders, Corrigan opened a fabricating shop — a sore point with the union. Corrigan was the only shop in town doing prefab and union members thought they had an unfair advantage. But it remained opened and stood as an example for large contractors around the country who, today, couldn’t live without their fabrication shops.

John Corrigan’s sucess was greatly due to his savvy as a businessman. Even at the turn of the century, he understood the principals of running a business better then many contractors do today. He always had a secretary in the office who handled calls, wrote letters and kept paperwork organized. He networked constantly, getting steady work from the local church and schools by attending church picnics, funerals and bazaars. He advertised by putting up signs in front of new buildings. He joined business associations, clubs, had a telephone directory ad and ran newspaper items. His marketing goals were worthy of a 20th century business plan. He had a vision of the future that set the foundation for the multi-million dollar firm that emerged over a century of doing business.

When John died in 1947, his sons, James A. and Thomas J., took over. They later left the company to their sons, Tom Jr., Tim, Dennis, Chris, Mike, Kevin and Jim, who today manage the $100 million a year mechanical contracting firm that their grandfather built from scratch.

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