Success Story: Attala Native Builds Booming Plumbing Business

Nathaniel Estes was raised on a farm just outside Kosciusko in 1931 during the Great Depression.

He was number seven in a family of eight children and soon realized he wanted to work for himself. As the son of a farmer, Estes learned to do several jobs that required him to work long hours, which often meant getting up before sunrise and working until dark. In his precious free time away from farm work, he frequented minstrel shows as a teenager and young adult in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

After graduating from Springdale High School, Estes volunteered for the United States Air Force and was stationed in Lake Charles, Louisiana for boot camp. He volunteered for a posting in North Africa in a town near Casablanca after his cousin, Henry Niles Fuller, prevented him from going to the Korean uprising because of the fierce fighting there.

Nathaniel Estes served in the US Air Force in North Africa in the 1950s.

Estes said: “I made sure to take care of my parents. … I sent an award check for $42 of my military pay plus $98 from the government which totaled $140 a month for four years while I was in service. He worked as a meat cutter during his service and continued to do so when he was honorably discharged from the army in 1956. Then he went to Waterloo, Iowa, staying with his older brother, Jimmie, for about two months until he got his own apartment/room at 26.

Estes continued to work for two and a half years in a Detroit meatpacking plant, but soon realized that was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. At that time, he was living with his aunt, and she had a plumbing problem that required a licensed plumber to be called in to complete the job. As the plumber was working to fix his aunt’s sewer lines, Estes asked how much the job was going to cost, and the plumber said, “It’s going to cost $1 a foot, and the line is going to have to be run 85 feet. . And it will take about two hours to complete the job. Eighty-five bucks for two hours of work sounded pretty good, especially since Estes only made $1.50 an hour at the packing station.

That’s when Estes’ girlfriend, Rainey, told him that her brother was going to plumbing school in Oklahoma, and she thought it would be a good career for Estes. Plumbing school seemed like a better way to go than becoming an undertaker, an idea Estes saw as a lucrative profession. At that time, you had to become an apprentice before you could go to plumbing school. Estes’ friend told him to go out and learn plumbing by working for one, then he could get into plumbing school. Estes worked as a plumber’s helper for a few months. At first he thought plumbing was a dirty job, but he soon realized he could put on a pair of gloves and wash his dirty clothes. He figured that making a lot of money outweighed getting dirty.

After much research, Estes found he could get into a plumbing school at Oklahoma State University and use the GI Bill to pay for it. So he left for Oklahoma in 1958, finishing with flying colors. By the time Estes finished business school, he also became Rainey’s husband, started a family, and bought a house in Denver. Although his new home was rent-to-own, because Estes had no credit, the homeowner believed that Estes’ ability to complete plumbing school with his journeyman’s license would ensure that the house would be taken care of.

Now Estes was on his way. He had moved to Denver, finished plumbing school with his journeyman’s license, and married Rainey Austin of Arkansas in 1955. She was the only black woman in Iowa to own her own public beauty salon. Estes said, “Rainey was a great choice to marry because we had the same idea of ​​working for ourselves.”

Estes started working for Moore’s Plumbing for about eight years. He became a supervisor at Moore’s and was paid for sick days and holidays, which was very different from the endless long hours on the farm. He went downtown to the town hall office, where the men went to get a plumber’s license in Denver and passed the city’s license test. He began working weekdays for Moore’s Plumbing Company and worked on the side on weekends, working mostly in bathrooms. Soon, bathroom jobs started pouring in from everywhere. Eventually he left Moore’s, and in 1968 Nate founded the Estes Plumbing Company. He was lucky enough to work for Moore’s Plumbing because it and Roundtree Plumbing were the only two black-owned plumbing companies in Denver in the 1960s.

Estes said, “You know, I had learned about discrimination in Davenport, Iowa. I went to eight plumbing companies in Davenport before one of those white-owned companies gave me a chance. The white owner asked me if I could read a blueprint and if I could draw a sketch, and of course I did because I had learned to do it at Oklahoma State University. I learned early on, even back on the farm, if you want something from life, you have to prepare and then go out and get it. Sam Peeler, a plantation owner in Kosciusko, hired me as a child but paid me as an adult because I worked as hard as an adult.

The Estes Plumbing Company’s business began to prosper and Estes was able to hire several men, paying top dollar for his workers. Estes remembers being approached to join the Union, but he turned down the offer. However, he began to be hired as a special consultant by several white-owned prime contractors specifically to identify leaks in high-rise buildings because he was so good. He said, “I started getting jobs and contracts at the airport and with the city of Denver working on 20-story office buildings and in hospitals. Therefore, I had to hire several men at the start of my business. Estes Plumbing worked around 25 men and up, depending on contract size.

Estes often said, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to do things the right way, without taking shortcuts like many hand plumbers did.” I learned to layout, draw and design plumbing projects because I enjoyed working at a professional level. I always paid my workers what I knew they were worth, just like Moore’s Plumbing Company did when I started. I started out making $1.50 an hour which was a good salary at the time, but ended up paying my employees $33 an hour when I retired at 67 year. I also got into real estate, buying houses and renting them out. It’s always a good idea to have outside income, even if I had my own business. I quickly had several real estate properties in Arizona and now I even have a summer residence in my hometown of Kosciusko.

In 1981, Nathaniel Estes received the NAACP Plumber of the Year Award at an awards ceremony at the Denver Convention Center. Estes never sold Estes Plumbing Company and still at 91 today, he still has a plumber’s license. He retired at age 67. Estes retired from a successful black-owned business he started when there were only two black-owned businesses run by black master plumbers in the city of Denver.

When asked what he thought he should do now, he replied, “I just want to travel and visit my family, especially my brother Eulice Estes who is now 95 in Detroit. I often give her birthday parties now that I can afford it.

He travels frequently with his daughter, Kathy; sons, Fredrick and Nathaniel Jr.; and his wife of 67 years, Rainey.

He said: “I just want to help young people now and let them know they can be successful and live a good life. The good Lord has been good to me and has even given me a little more in my life. When I came to Denver, I only knew one black plumber. I like a man who has the idea to work for himself and take care of his family. Now I just want to help my family and my community live a better life.

Dr. Brinda Fuller Willis is an editor for the Jackson Advocate. This article first appeared in the Jackson Advocate.