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.

Steve Humble, own­er of Humble Plumbing since 1975, at work in the store.

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?

Humble Plumbing, 120 Wall Street in Winchester. The busi­ness was start­ed by Steve’s father Walker Humble in 1946 and has occu­pied the same loca­tion ever since.

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.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.