Dale Maley: Plumbing firm spawned many business start-ups

Plumbers working at the E.L. Payne plumbing firm in 1957.
Plumbers working at the E.L. Payne plumbing firm in 1957.

The E.L. Payne plumbing firm served Fairbury area customers for 30 years. This firm served as a business incubator with many Fairbury men learning their craft, working for E.L. Payne, and then starting their own businesses. Dale Dameron, Wade Harris, Henry Maurer, John Bushman, and John Dietiker all started at the Payne shop before they quit to create their own companies.

E.L. Payne was one of Fairbury's early plumbers. The story of the Payne family began with the marriage of Jeptha Payne (1875-1935) and Martha T. Gentry (1866-1942). In 1895 in Temple Hill, Kentucky, they had a son they gave the rather unusual name of Elchard Levi Payne. When their son grew up, he preferred the nickname "Slim," or he used his initials of E.L. Payne.

In the 1910 census, Elchard was 14 years old and lived with his parents in Union, Kentucky. His occupation was a farm laborer on his father's farm. Sometime before 1918, Elchard moved from Kentucky to Fairbury. Many pioneer settlers relocated from the Kentucky area to Fairbury to farm.

In June of 1918, Fairbury farmer Elchard Payne was inducted into the U.S. Army for service in the infantry in World War I. He did his basic training at Camp Wheeler in Georgia. Elchard landed in France in October of 1918, just a couple of weeks before the war ended. He served in the Army of Occupation in France until he was discharged to Camp Grant in Rockford in May of 1919.

Elchard returned to Fairbury after his military service. He joined the plumbing firm owned by George Armbruster. Elchard learned the plumbing trade working for Mr. Armbruster.

In 1926, at the age of 31, Elchard married Velva Joan Travis of Fairbury. She was 36 years of age. Elchard and Velva Payne had no children.

In 1933, at the age of 38, Elchard quit working for Mr. Armbruster and formed his own company called E.L. Payne Plumbing & Heating. His new business was located at 210 E. Locust St., across the street from Sunken Park. Customers could call for service by asking the operator for the two-digit phone number 20.

In 1938, bookkeeper Miss Lola Mary Weber resigned, and Miss Mary Eleanor Combes accepted the bookkeeper's position at E.L. Payne Plumbing.

Before 1949, Henry Maurer learned the electrician trade by working at Payne Plumbing. In 1949, Henry quit and formed Maurer & Roth Electric with his son-in-law, Earl Roth. Their firm was located where Dave's Supermarket produce section is today.

Elchard Payne had a sister named Nellie Beulah Payne. She married Paul Bowles in Kentucky. One of their children was Garnett Boyd Bowles.

In 1955, when Garnett Bowles was 26 years old, he decided to travel from Kentucky to Fairbury to ask his uncle Elchard for a job. Upon arriving in Fairbury, Garnett Bowles sat in Sunken Park for a while before getting the courage to go into his uncle's plumbing shop across the street.

Employees working in the E.L. Payne shop were about ready to call the police because they thought the stranger in Sunken Park was casing the business to rob it. About that time, Garnett got the courage to walk across the street into his uncle's shop and ask him for a job. Elchard Payne gave his nephew Garnett Bowles a job.

Mr. Walter Runyon also worked for E.L. Payne. In 1955, Walter quit and moved his wife and three kids to Dwight to work for R&M Plumbing Co.

By 1955, Payne Plumbing & Heating had extended its product line to include RCA televisions.

In 1957, Payne Plumbing employed seven plumbers. These seven Fairbury plumbers were Bill Weber, Homer Ford, Dale Dameron, Wade Harris, Hartzell Cox, John Bushman and Garnett Bowles.

Once a week, each employee of E.L. Payne had to take a turn sweeping up the shop. Fortunately, there was a hole in the floor, so the plumbers just swept the dust down the hole. A couple of times a year, E.L. Payne would send the newest employee down to clean up the basement floor. The new employees were shocked to find a perfect cone-shaped dust pile reaching from the basement floor up to the hole on the first floor!

By 1963, E.L. Payne was 68 years old. He decided to retire and sell the plumbing business to one of his plumbers, Bill Weber. Other employees at E.L. Payne Plumbing over the years included John Dietiker, Alf Ferguson, Bill Bartlett, Dean Gerdes, Bob Schmidt and Jim Wills.

In 1964, Dale Dameron and Wade Harris quit working for the E.L. Payne plumbing shop, and they formed a new business named D&H Plumbing & Heating Shop. "D" was for Dameron, and "H" was for Harris. Dale Dameron took over full ownership in a few years and changed the firm's name to Dameron Plumbing & Heating. Wade Harris continued to work as a plumber until he retired from that firm.

John Bushman started at the E.L. Payne plumbing shop but quit and went into business by himself as a plumber. John Dietiker also started at E.L. Payne's shop before he left and established his own firm in Pontiac.

In 1975, Elchard Levi Payne died at the age of 80. He was buried in Fairbury's Graceland Cemetery. One month later, Mrs. Payne died and was buried in Graceland Cemetery.

Over the subsequent years, the primary plumbers who worked for E.L. Payne gradually died out. Homer Ford died in 1982. Garnett Bowles, the nephew of E.L. Payne, died in 1989. Wade Harris died in 1993, and William Weber died in 1996. John Dietiker passed away in 2015, and Dale Dameron died in 2017.

This article originally appeared on Pontiac Daily Leader: Dale C. Maley: Plumbing firm spawned many business start-ups