We continue our series of the 10 oldest PHCP companies still in family hands.
G.W. Wheeler & Sons-Plumbers, LLC,
We were about to put G.W. Wheeler & Sons-Plumbers LLC, in the “Close But No Cigar” category until we heard more from William Wheeler, the founder’s great-grandson, who goes by his middle name Winston. Yes, there is a break in continuity in the company’s chronology, but, as we’ll see, the family business has always been in plumbing.
The final kicker for us was that Winston told us a local Texas history museum had decided to not acknowledge the business despite extensive documentation on Winston’s part because of that break.
We’re not about to let that happen in these pages, so here goes: William Wheeler, was born in England in 1861, the seventh of nine children. At age 18, he wanted to immigrate to New Zealand, but was unable to pay for such a lengthy journey. Instead, he headed to America, first arriving in Philadelphia in 1880. William worked for a time in iron mines in New Jersey before taking a job with C.E. Gray Construction in St Louis.
William got his first plumbing experience in the Show Me State installing water works in St. Charles, before doing the same in four different cities in Texas finally arriving in Victoria in 1884. His water works installations in Victoria included a standpipe, a precursor to a water tower, which stood for the next 43 years right in the center of the town’s popular park, DeLeon Plaza.
By 1885, William was earning $50 a month as the town’s water superintendent. Later, he became the sewer superintendent, with a bump in pay to $70 a month. Under his supervision, Victoria built the first section of its sewer system. In all, William continued working for the city of Victoria for nearly 37 years.
However, he also opened up the city’s first plumbing shop, Wheeler Plumbing Co., in 1885. His brother James also immigrated and worked for the company as a plumber. Wheeler Plumbing operated out of William’s kitchen. William and James would carry their plumbing tools in a satchel and carry bundles of steel pipe on their shoulders to jobs around town, thus avoiding having to use a wagon and horse or mule.
William married Emma Hauschild, and James married Mary Buckmeier, who was raised by the Hauschild family after being left an orphan at a young age.
By 1901, William formed a plumber’s association and was charged with antitrust violations and faced a fine of, depending on how you read an old newspaper clipping, either $1.5 million or $1,500.
“Anyone who knows more about it is long gone,” Winston told us.
Either way, the case was settled for $60.
However, William kept after the idea and in 1914, he was one of eleven original directors to form the Associate Master Plumbers of Texas, an organization that has grown into the Texas PHCC, the oldest and largest PHCC association in the U.S.
By that time, William’s son, Geoffrey William Wheeler, had been part of the company since leaving the sixth grade in 1902 to work for his father as a plumber’s apprentice. A company history, Winston provided us recounts the time Geoffrey hopped on the train to Falfurrias, Texas to install the plumbing for a new bank, probably designed by noted Danish-born architect Jules Leffland, well known for his versatile work designing some 80 structures throughout South Texas.
“His father told him, to ‘go run the job.’ He was probably just 14 when this happened,” Winston says. “Times were a little different back then.”
Geoffrey continued working for his father, only absent to serve two years during WWI. In 1930, William, after 45 years of hard work, sold the company to Geoffrey who renamed the business, G.W. Wheeler, Master Plumber. William passed away in 1931.
Geoffrey ran the business until 1955, when his son, William Geoffrey (Billy) took it over, changing the company name to G.W. Wheeler and Son. Billy kept the shop going until 1965 when he became the city plumbing inspector. Although his grandfather may have been able to be a water and sewer superintendent while also operating his own private plumbing business, being an inspector wasn’t going to work for a full-time plumber. Faced with a conflict of interest, Billy closed the business.
“I prefer to think that the business was idle,” Winston says. “The original shop property was never sold.”
While holding the city inspector position, Billy was also appointed to the State Board of Plumbing Examiners, serving a total of 12 years, eventually retiring in the late-1980s.
Meanwhile, Winston, Billy’s son, had gone to work for Malitz Hiller, who, in fact, worked for Winston’s grandfather before starting Hiller Plumbing. Winston started his apprenticeship in 1974 and later graduated from Texas A&M University.
In 1989, Winston reopened the family business, renaming it G.W. Wheeler & Sons-Plumbers LLC. Winston’s sons, William Winston Jr. and Geoffrey Daniel also joined the company. Both have worked for the company since high school and are now licensed master plumbers.
Winston says almost all of his business currently is commercial, including maintenance work for the area’s hospitals and schools and universities.
And based on the fact that Geoffrey and William both have young sons – Weston, Wyatt, Liam and Hayes, plumbing seems to be in the blood, so there may be another generation.
“The youngest is 1 and we already have him playing with fittings,” Winston adds.
A.N. Roth Co.
We caught up with Karl P. “Phill” Roth Jr. in late-March when the country was just beginning to come to grips with business shutdowns related to COVID-19.
“Plumbing may be an essential service that didn’t need to shut down,” he told us, “but to me there’s nothing more essential than our employees.”
As a result, Phill had decided to temporarily close his business and give everyone a two-week paid vacation.
The company has about 15 employees and relies mostly on a steady customer base and word-of-mouth recommendations.
“Our customers are important, too, and if we treat everyone right, then we are going to win this,” he adds.
Phill, 69, admits that at this point in the business, “he just writes the checks” and lets his sons, Richard and Phillip III run A.N. Roth Co. The company currently enjoys a reputation for specializing in high-end plumbing and heating work, including geothermal and radiant installations and green residential energy audits.
A.N. Roth Co. traces its heritage to 1866 when German immigrant Jacob Roth set up tin smith shop in a part of Louisville dubbed Butchertown, so named for the area’s stockyards and butcher shops. There, Jacob with a wagon for tools, repaired roofs, did handyman work and sold and installed coal and wood-burning stoves.
Following Jacob’s death in 1897, son Alfred N. took over the business and expanded into hardware. In 1945, sons, Karl P. Sr., Alfred J., and Frederick W., assumed responsibilities and eventually phased out the hardware business to concentrate on expanding into commercial heating and cooling.
The three brothers operated the business until 1971 when Phill took over operations. His sister Rose Mary also joined the business in 1978.
Today, whenever a truck with the blue and white A.N. Roth Heating & Cooling logo pulls up to a home or business, the “since 1866” on the side speaks to the humble beginnings of the company.
“It does mean something to people that you’ve been around that long,” Phill says.
Ferguson Plumbing & Heating,
Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania
We almost gave up tracking down Ferguson Plumbing & Heating, until we got a call from Kip Ferguson.
“I bet you were wondering about a company with no website these days,” Kip says.
Back when we first learned about the company in the 1990s, it was a two-man plumbing shop run by father and son Lawrence L. and Lawrence C. Ferguson. Our research online produced an obit for Lawrence L., who passed away in 2014 at age 86. Also, our detective work turned up an “unclaimed” status on Yelp, and, God forbid, an aol.com email address.
Without much of a digital footprint we were prepared to figure that Ferguson might have gone the way of some other names we’d written about in the past.
As it turns out, Lawrence C., who prefers to go by Kip, is content running a one-man shop these days.
“I prefer a low profile,” he adds. “But I also prefer the old-fashioned personal touch. I can’t tell you how many customers’ keys or garage door codes I have.”
Kip and his dad, in fact, continued to work together for decades.
“There was a time when I worked for him,” he adds. “And there was a time when he worked for me. He enjoyed coming to work and never really wanted to retire.”
As we talked to Kip, however, it was apparent that this was another one for the “Close But Not Cigar” category. Because, you see, the original Lawrence Ferguson didn’t actually start the business. But we didn’t want all our detective work to go for naught, plus Kip made a good case to highlight the guy who was there from Day 1 and deserves a lot of the credit for keeping a business running for the next 131 years.
The first Lawrence Ferguson worked for Issac B. Thorn when he started I.B. Thorn Plumbing, Gas Fitting and Drainage, in Philadelphia in 1889. Lawrence eventually took the reigns of the business in 1916 after Thorn retired and renamed it the L.L. Ferguson Plumbing Co.
Ferguson started with a horse and cart and a pushcart that looks more like a kid’s wagon. By 1920, Lawrence was tooling around on a motorcycle, replacing the sidecar with a handy toolbox – the box truck of its day. On the side, Ferguson painted “Lawrence L. Ferguson, Successor to I.B. Thorn Plumbing, Heating, Range Work, 2446 Ridge Ave."
“You have to figure,” Kip adds, “that much of the company’s early days predates the automobile or at least the days when it was common to have one. A lot of plumbers would have made service calls on a trolley. So, anything like a motorcycle must have been a big step up.”
By the late-1920s, Lawrence’s son, Lawrence Jr. joined the business, taking over in 1936. Lawrence Jr. continued conducting business into the 1950s. His son, Lawrence III (the “Lawrence L.” we knew from the 1990s) went to work for his father and succeeded him as business owner in 1959.
Kip came onboard as a partner in 1982 when he was 25, and became the sole owner in 1993.
As a final note, particularly considering he’s proud to be a one-man band, Kip gained some notoriety in the 2000s after he wrote a letter to the editor after reading a columnist who basically said that contractors better get big or go home.
“I believe the backbone of the plumbing and heating industry are the small shops,” Kip wrote. “Is it so bad to run a one- or two-man shop if it is run professionally? To quote Frank Blau: “People sometimes criticize me for emphasizing aggressive marketing and growth, but that is misreading my message. I have never told anyone they must grow big. There are many advantages to a one-man firm ... ”
He went on: “As a fourth-generation master plumber whose business dates back to 1889, I feel qualified to speak on the effectiveness of a small plumbing shop. Yes, it is just my father and me, but I take great pride in operating a professional and profitable small firm. If I am the one-man band (or duet, as it were) that you are talking about, I assure you that I am playing Beethoven!”