Some History of the Wheeler Family and Their Corning Plumbing Shop
Remembrances of Andrew Wheeler, Claire Wheeler Johnson and Jim Holland
as compiled by Keith Wheeler, June 29, 1998.
This article appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of
Wagon Wheels, a Publication of the Colusi County Historical Society,
Volume 48, Number 2, pages 34-37.
In 1854, on a wagon train somewhere between the Mississippi River and California, Augustus Wheeler fell in love with the daughter of Norwegian immigrant couple who had come to America on the ship "Restoration" which is now called the "Norwegian Mayflower." The young couple married en route and settled in the Napa, California, area where their first son, Andrew Jackson Wheeler was born. A. J. was raised near Napa and at Jackson. While trained as a watchmaker, he stubbornly went into tin smithing. In the late 1800's he opened a tin-shop in the then thriving town of Newville west of Corning. He made and repaired pots and pans in the winter and built and installed windmills and water tanks in the summer. In 1884 he married Belle Osborn from the large Osborn family of Newville (Belle's father, Sullivan, came to California in 1851).
In 1902 A. J., Belle and their three sons moved to Corning, and A. J. established his windmill, plumbing and sheet metal business facing Fourth Avenue behind where the Corning Bank of America building later would be built. Belle Wheeler always bragged that it was at this Wheeler business site that the first vote was taken to adopt prohibition and establish Corning as the "Clean Town" in 1906. Sometime later a lot was purchased, a building erected and the family business was moved to the south side of Solano Street just west of Sixth Avenue. In these early days the signing on the front of the shop read, "A. J. Wheeler's Sons, Pumping Plant Specialists, Sheet Metal Works, Plumbing." In later years it was known as Wheeler's Plumbing Shop. Here A. J., his sons, and employees continued to build and install windmills and water tanks and to install and repair electric pumps. In the early days "A. J. Wheeler" could be seen on the fantails of many windmills in Tehama County. The sheet metal works included the fabrication of everything from farm and industrial products to rain gutters, chimney flues and swamp coolers.
The original Wheeler home place was on several lots on Solano Street east of Toomes Avenue. Belle Wheeler was an active homemaker. In addition to his family and business, A. J. was active in the Masonic Lodge and the Corning First Christian Church where he was a trustee, an elder, and a member of the building committee when the Church was built in 1912.
When A. J. Wheeler retired, his oldest son, Gus, took over the business. After a few years Gus left Corning to work for a pump company in the San Jose area. The business was then taken over by the next oldest son, St. Clare ("Saintey"), with the youngest son, Hilton ("Wilkey"), working at the shop periodically. St. Clare remodeled the shop moving original shop back from the street and built a new front show room with the front door set back and angled display windows . Just behind the show room was a small bookkeeping office, a room for pipefittings, and a room for job design, layout and estimating. The rear of the building was a large barn-like shop with the raised ground floor housing sheet metal racks, metal and pipe working machines (e.g., metal brakes, forming tools, pipe threading machines), work benches, tool racks, metal working chemicals and a layout area. At one time the Wheeler shop had the longest metal brake in Northern California. Above the work floor, an L-shaped mezzanine was for storage and this was where the main equipment motor used to power the belt driven machines was located. Also on the mezzanine, for a time, an electrician by the name of Mr. Ford had an electrical business. In coordination with the plumbing shop business, Mr. Ford would wire service poles and control boxes for the pumping turbines. He performed other services from wiring houses to selling light bulbs. The fenced-in back yard of the shop had racks holding different sizes of pipe on the sides. There was usually found the large Dodge truck with chain-link fence on the sides and metal top. This truck, equipped with pipe racks and vises, was used to hold and carry the heavy equipment and materials used in installations and repairs. Across the field to the west of the shop, was fenced-in storage or "bone" yard where large items were stored.
As electric deep-well pumps came into wider usage, sales, installation and repair of pumps accounted for more of the business than windmills. The windmills that were installed were then made elsewhere and assembled on-site by the shop crew. The sheet metal works continued to construct tanks, water troughs and smaller items. With plumbing coming into the house from the "outhouse," the shop sold and installed all household plumbing fixtures and supplies. One of St. Clare's largest jobs was installing the water tower for Corning (which still stands today).
In addition to being known as an inventive and generous businessman, St. Clare was active in early Corning civic and social life. As a veteran of World War I, he was active in the local American Legion, playing in their drum and bugle corps, and was Commander the year the Corning American Legion Memorial Hall was constructed. He was also a member of Corning Lodge, No. 305, I. O. O. F., and the First Christian church.
In addition to his brother Hilton, and St. Clare's oldest son Andrew, some of St. Clare's later employees included Curly Lash and Barney Barnes, a sheet metal specialist. As Barney grew older and his eyesight started to fade, he blamed eyestrain from working with the shiny metal outside on such projects as installing roof flashing and rain gutters. A young boy by the name of Jim Holland was hired just out of the eighth grade, apprenticed in the trade, and became a valued employee. Mildred Greer was the shop secretary for a period of time. St. Clare's son, Andrew, remembers his first job in the business when he was quite small. When pump motors were brought in for repair, he had to clean them before they were sent to Fred Sales machine shop on Sixth Street. Sales would not accept a motor unless it was "clean enough to eat off of." He also remembers helping put up windmills. Andrew said that their hands were often cut on the sharp blades.
In 1939, at the age of 39, St. Clare died suddenly from a heart attack. His wife, Doris (who had been raised in Orland and descended from the early Glenn County families of Birch and Cushman), tried to continue the business. Jim Holland did the trade work, and her brother-in-law, Gus, returned to also help out. Doris was not much of a businesswoman but was able to pay off all of the debts before she sold the business around 1940 to Stanley Roush, an owner of a local olive plant.
After the Wheeler family was out of the plumbing shop business, Doris returned her focus to raising her four children and started many years of doing childcare locally. Later she worked in Roush's olive plant and in 1958 married John Carter, a local olive plant mechanic and olive grower. In early 1941 her son Andrew joined the Navy and a few months later was aboard ship in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. Surviving Peal Harbor, he served with distinction throughout the rest of the war and during the Bikini Atoll Atom bomb tests. Returning from the Navy, Andrew worked in the plumbing and boiler making business out of Chico, Marysville and Sacramento where he retired in 1980. The other Wheeler children went through Corning schools but all eventually left the area for other parts of California. Hilton Wheeler, who was known for his brilliance with electric motors and electronics, left Corning living his later years in the San Francisco Bay Area where he died in 1976, and where his surviving two sons now live. A. J.'s oldest son, Gus, settled with his wife, Nellie in Red Bluff where he served as deputy tax assessor for many years. He died in Red Bluff in 1965. After Doris sold the shop, Jim Holland joined the Navy and served during World War II. After the service he became a successful plumbing contractor and retired in Lovelock, Nevada.
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