On Monday, Dec. 27, WCN&V’s Chuck Witt sat down with long-time Winchester business owner Steve Humble, owner of Humble Plumbing. The two men enjoyed a chat about the history of Steve’s family business and other topics, including — Russian iconography? Enjoy! [–Ed]
WCN&V: We wanted to let the community know a bit more about your business, Steve. Most residents of Winchester know of Humble Plumbing; I’m not sure that many know about Humble Plumbing.
SH: My father Walker was born in 1910. By the time he was twelve, he was working in a shop doing menial chores like sweeping and cleaning for a man named Grant Witt. In those days Witt did plumbing, guttering, and roofing. The shop was next door to a wallpaper store and every day after working, he would collect scrap wallpaper from next door. He took those scraps home and practiced cutting them into shapes to form sheet metal items that were typically used by plumbers, and he became pretty expert at sheet metal by the time he was 16 and was doing all the sheet metal work for the shop.
He graduated school early and entered Transylvania. He would get up at four o’clock in the morning, go to the shop and do sheet metal layout work, board the train to Lexington, go to classes, and then come back and cut sheet metal for the next day’s work.
He went on to graduate with honors and planned to become a minister. He entered Transy’s College of the Bible which later became the Theological Seminary — but eventually decided that the ministry was not for him when the depression hit. All his brothers and sisters were at home without work but he could make a living doing sheet metal work.
He went into partnership with Boyd Newkirk in 1932. The business was called Humble and Newkirk and lasted until World War II started and he entered the Army Air Corps and ended up doing sheet metal work all through the war.
In 1946 my dad and Newkirk decided to split and dad found a little Model T repair shop to set up his business and that’s where the shop is now.
WCN&V: I was going to ask if your father was in any other business before he got into plumbing, but since he started at 12, he probably wasn’t.
SH: He was very active as a young fella. He was entrepreneurial. He raised carrier pigeons and he raised guinea pigs for labs.
WCN&V: So when did you get involved in the business?
SH: When dad turned 65 I bought him out. That was in 1975. He went home for two weeks and realized that he couldn’t handle retirement so he came back to the shop and worked until he was 92. He died at 94 and my brother Phil joined the business in 1977.
WCN&V: And what was he doing at that time?
Phil graduated from Western Kentucky University and he had been doing other things including being a salesman. I got really overwhelmed at the shop and asked him to come join me and we’ve had a successful partnership for almost 50 years.
WCN&V: Did you go to college as well?
SH: Yes, I graduated from UK in 1970 with a double major in psychology and Russian studies. I’ve found that dealing with people as I do that having a psychology degree comes in handy.
WCN&V: I assume the Russian studies are what got you interested in Russian iconography.
SH: Yes, and I collected Russian icons for many years until the collection went to a museum of a friend of mine in Clinton, Massachusetts. Now my interests lie in African collections.
WCN&V: What are some of the hurdles facing the profession today?
SH: Mostly I think it’s the fact that the profession isn’t exciting young people. There’s this attitude that nothing is worthwhile unless one has a college degree, but there’s great satisfaction in working with your hands and creating something and solving a problem, and that’s what I think we do. Prior to World War II, most young people grew up working with their hands, on farms and elsewhere and that just led right into doing trades. It’s not that way now.
WCN&V: Have new technologies and materials made the business easier or harder?
SH: Both. When I graduated college in 1970 we were still putting cast iron drain pipes together with lead joints and threading our own steel pipe and soldering copper pipe. Of course, we still solder copper piping, but new plastic (PET) piping has made the job easier and faster and plastic drain lines are smoother and easier to repair. And we’ve gone from 7.5‑gallon flush toilets to 1.6 gallons which saves a lot of water, and the toilets today work well. But some things aren’t necessarily as good, like instant demand water heaters, because they’re very complex and, around here, the limestone in the water causes a lot of problems with them because they scale up, and your typical plumber isn’t going to be able to look at the electronic control panel in one of those and diagnose a problem.
WCN&V: Are you going to retire at 92?
SH: Well, [my father] did so well working to 92 that I’ve decided that 90 is probably a good age to let go. I’m 71 now so I’ve got 19 more years to go.
WCN&V: Now, is Phil older or younger than you?
SH: Phil is two years younger. I stay in the shop and deal with customers, take the calls, handle the merchandise; he does virtually all the fieldwork.
WCN&V: Do you have any other employees?
SH: No, it’s just Phil and me. We’ve had as many as ten employees at one time.
WCN&V: So Winchester can expect to see Humble Plumbing around for another 19 years, and you won’t be moving the shop?
SH: Well, that’s the plan and, no, we won’t be moving the shop.
WCN&V: Well, being in business for 89 years is surely a sign of success and Winchester is fortunate to have you here.
SH: Thanks. We’re blessed to be here.