Friday, May 27, 2016


I'm sure most of my readers are familiar with Fortune magazine. Fortune is a multinational business magazine, published by Time Inc. and headquartered in New York City.  The publication was founded by Henry Luce in 1929. The magazine competes with Forbes in the national business magazine category.  Unlike Forbes, which has always been more of a "lace curtain" business magazine, Fortune was always more about the "nuts and bolts" of industry.  If you had picked up a copy of Fortune from March, 1940 you would see articles with titles such as "Business and Government," "West Coast Politics," "American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp.," "Managers of Steel," "The Aircraft Boom," "Fall and Rise of McKesson & Robbins," "The Incredible Barco," and "War on the Sea."  The cover featured "Pipelines" by Fred Chance: 

Included in the March, 1940 articles was one titled "Master Plumber," which told the story of Fred Flader from Evanston, Illinois.  Before we take a look at the Fortune article about him, let's see what we can "dig up" about Evanston Master Plumber Fred Flader.

Gottfried William ("Fred") Flader was born June 2, 1882 on a farm seven miles from Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  He was the ninth child born to Gottfried Flader (1843-1882) and Louise, nee Brehm (1851-1918). Fred's father died March 27, 1882, sixty-seven days before Fred was born, so Louise Flader decided to name the new baby boy after his deceased father.  In those days among the German-speaking natives, the surname "Flader" was pronounced "Flouder."

Having nine children to raise on a farm was not easy for Louise Flader, so she soon remarried. On September 14, 1883 Louise married Herman A. Meyer (1858-1944) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Louise gave birth to thirteen children all together - nine with Gottfried Flader and four with Herman Meyer.  They are as follows:

  Born Died
Paulina L. Flader
1868 1874
Albrecht (Albert) Flader
1869 1955
Bertha Christine Flader 
1870 1933
Emil Charles Flader 
1872 1951
Hugo Gottfried Flader
1874 1899
Wilhelm (William) Flader
1876 1881
Charles Arthur Flader 
1879 1944
Louise Flader 
1880 1969
Gottfried William "Fred" Flader 
1882 1962
Adeline Meyer 
1884 ????
Tillie Meyer 
1886 ????
Herman Adolph Meyer
1887 ????
Oscar A. Meyer
1889 1939

Young Fred Flader went to the crossroads school and did chores on the farm along with his older brothers, but he did not get along with his step-father Herman Meyer, who had a terrible temper.  One winter night when Fred was 14 years old, his step-father lashed at him with a horsewhip. Fred stayed to finish his chores in the morning and the left the farm.  He walked the seven miles to town through deep snow and never went back.  In later years Fred was heard to say that "looking back, now it seems that that whip was in the hand of Providence."

Fourteen year old Fred Flader got a job with the Garton Toy Company in Sheboygan.  Five cents an hour for a twelve hour day six days a week, drilling holes in the rear ends of hobbyhorses and stuffing in flaxen tails. The Christmas hobbyhorse rush was about over, though, and when he heard that Nehrlich & Schaetzer, plumbers, were looking for a boy to help around the shop.  Fred applied for the job and got it.  He was paid $2.50 a week, and his duties were to tend the stoves and take care of the horses.

Nehrlich & Schaetzer was a small operator, and when a contract for the plumbing in a new school house came along they had to advertise in out-of-town papers for an extra plumber.  A man named Charlie Donnelson turned up from Minnesota.  He was a real plumber all right, and he staggered the small-town firm when he announced that he never plumbed without a helper - a personal helper.  The only one around the shop who even looked like a helper was fifteen-year-old Fred, and Charlie took him on.  Charlie liked young Fred and found that Fred was a fast learner.  After the school job was finished, Charlie and Fred went to a hospital job where unfortunately Charlie fell ill with the lead colic and died.  Lead colic is a symptom of lead poisoning and was an occupational hazard for those who worked with lead and lead products such and plumbers and painters.

Fred Flader was devastated at the loss of his mentor and friend.  Years later he said that Charlie had been his hero (and perhaps the father Fred never had).  Fred Flader kept a photo of Charlie's flower-draped casket on his desk all through the years until he retired.  When someone asked about the photo, Fred said "There was a man.  He was the best plumber there ever was.  Why, he could just look at a blueprint in the shop and do the job from memory - and faster than anyone I ever saw."

The 1900 US Census taken in June of that year, finds 18 year old "Freddie" Flader living with his brother Albert and Albert's family at 1509 Illinois Avenue in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  Fred listed his occupation as "Apprentice Plumber." 

1509 Illinois Avenue, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Later that same year Fred and his friend George Bauman set out to seek their fortunes in Chicago.  As the train went through Lake Bluff, Illinois, they saw from the window a sign saying "Men Wanted."  They got off the train at Highland Park and started to walk back.  On the way they went through Lake Forest and noticed a plumber's shop near the road.  Just on a chance Flader went in and asked for a job.  The shop belonged to John Fitzgerald, Irish and quick and not to be made a fool of by a kid from the country.  He walked around Fred and looked him up and down.  "So you're a plumber, eh?" "Yes."  "How old are you?"  "Eighteen."  "You got any kid brothers who are plumbers?"  Fred finally admitted that he was not a real plumber - just learning.  "So you're learning to be a plumber?"  Fred said that he did not want to be anything but a plumber for the rest of his life.  "What's your name?"  "Flouder."  "How do you spell that?"  "F-l-a-d-e-r."  "Well, you're Flayder here.  You're not up with those Dutchmen now."  And it has been pronounced "Flayder" ever since.

Fred Flader went to work for Fitzgerald when rich Chicagoans were beginning to build houses in the fashionable suburbs.  His first job was to help put six bathrooms into Meat Packer Louis F. Swift's house and his second job was to help install nine bathrooms (each decorated to represent a different nation) in the mansion that Carter Harrison Fitzhugh, La Salle street investment broker was building near the lakefront.  For eleven years Flader installed and repaired plumbing for Lake Forest's best.  When asked, he would recite their names with obvious pride: John T. Pirie, George B. McKinloch, A. B. Dick, Byron L. Smith, Cyrus McCormick, John Hanna, and John V. Farwell.  As he pointed out, men like these wouldn't be satisfied with the work of any but the finest plumber.

Fred Flader stopped plumbing for the rich and famous long enough to get married in 1906.  On April 28, 1906 Fred Flader married Elizabeth M. Grasser (1882-1934) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  They had been introduced by Fred's mentor Charlie Donnelson.

Shortly after their marriage, the newlyweds moved to Evanston, Illinois. The 1909 Evanston City Directory lists Fred Flader as a plumber with his residence at 2624 Thayer in Evanston.

2624 Thayer, Evanston

Fred and Elizabeth Flader were blessed with three children:  Calvin S. (1907-1985), Margarite  Dorothy (1910-????), and Elizabeth Louise (1916-1996).  The 1910 US Census shows the Flader family still living at 2624 Thayer in Evanston.  Fred was 27 years old and reported that he was a "Plumber in Shop."  Calvin was 3 years old and Margarite (spelled "Marguerite" here) was a newborn.

When Fred Flader registered for the draft on September 12, 1918 he listed his address as 1100 Monroe Street Evanston:

1100 Monroe Street, Evanston, Illinois

He listed his employer as "M. O'Malia, 924 Chicago Avenue, Evanston."

924 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, Illinois

In 1919 Fred was living and working in Evanston.  He had $3,000 in the bank ($2,000 of it was inheritance from his father's Civil War pension). He had worked for Fitzgerald and for half a dozen other plumbing contractors on the North Shore.  As noted above, during World War I he had worked as a journeyman for plumbing contractor Mike O'Malia in Evanston.  Flader was a good journeyman, drawing down $7.00 per day.  But now he was 37 years old and it was time for a change.

The next step up for a journeyman plumber is to become a master plumber.  A master plumber is licensed to hire journeyman plumbers to work for him, and to buy and sell plumbing equipment.  A master plumber doesn't do the actual plumbing work, he is in the business of plumbing. He prepares bids for plumbing contracts, and makes jobbing and repairing estimates.  He is a businessman, a salesman, and he no longer swings a wrench or wipes a joint.

Fred Flader presented himself and his bag of tools at city hall one morning in October, 1919, to take his master plumber's examination from the State Board of Plumbing Examiners.  The State Board was made up of one master plumber, one journeyman, and the local health director. They showed Flader blueprints that had been misdrawn deliberately.  He pointed out the errors, found a fixture without a vent pipe, a hot-water faucet on the right instead of the left side of a sink, a lavatory waste connected with a vent pipe instead of the soil stack.  He wiped a lead Y joint, keeping a big body of solder on the joint till the heat was up just right, wiping it off neatly.  He held the finished Y up to a Y drawn on the blackboard and had it fitted.  He drew a plumbing layout for an apartment building.  He was asked questions about  the building code - rules of sanitation, the overloading of sewer lines, back siphonage of water into intake lines, vents to prevent leakage of sewer gas.  He knew the answers and he passed the examination.

So, twenty-two years after Charlie Donnelson had shown him how to ream his first burr, Fred Flader became a master plumber, his own boss in the true work-up-from-nothing American tradition.  With the $3,000 he had in the bank he rented a store in a brick building at 1914 Central Street in North Evanston, and bought $2,000 worth of stock (tools, equipment, parts, fittings).  1914 Central Street is now a parking lot for a bank.  Flader bought a second-hand roll top desk that he used for the rest of his career (he wouldn't give it up), and he cut down an old Overland car to use as a truck.  He took off his overalls, gray shirt and battered hat and put on a dark business suit, white collar, tie, fedora.  He joined the Elks, the Eagles, the Optimists, the North End Men's Club, the Royal Arcanum Lodge.  And, although he was allowed to hold his journeyman's union card for a year in case he couldn't make a go as a master plumber, he joined the North Shore Master Plumbers' Association, paying a $200.00 initiation fee and $48.00 in annual dues.

The 1920 US Census showed the Flader family living at 2546 West Railroad Avenue - now Green Bay Road - in Evanston.  (A commercial building stands on that site today).  The family consisted of Fred, his wife and their children, but there had been an addition:  Elizabeth Flader had joined the family in 1916.  For the first time Fred Flader could list his occupation as "Plumber - Own Shop."

In his first year as a master plumber Fred Flader did $33,000 worth of business with a gross profit of $11,000.  By 1925 his total business was $66,000 and his gross profit $13,000.  In 1925 he bought a lot at 1918 Harrison Street in Evanston and built a brick and stone three-story building for $64,000.  The building has eight apartments and two stores.  One store is occupied by Fred Flader, Inc., and the other is rented to a laundry:

It was the Roaring Twenties and business roared for Fred Flader.  In 1927 he was awarded the contracts for thirty-one houses, regularly employed 15 journeymen, two apprentices, a truck driver and a bookkeeper; his gross income was $82,000.  Three-fourths of his income was from new contracts, one-fourth jobbing, repairing and cash sales.  His gross profit was $20,000.

That was the peak.  Flader invested in stocks and bonds, bought into National Family Stores, became a stockholder in the Commercial Savings Bank of Evanston, bought a lot at Lake Geneva on which he planned to build a summer home someday.  He also bought the lot and two houses back of his store building and remodeled the houses - one for himself and one to rent:

2513 Prairie Avenue, Evanston 

He was a rising man, a self-made American with a good business and a good future.  It wouldn't be long before he could spend his days playing golf - which has always been his symbol of complete success.

But then everything started to slip. 

In 1928 Flader's gross business slipped to $55,000 but rebounded in 1929 to $62,000.  The stock market crashed in October of 1929.  Flader's gross business slumped to $32,000 in 1930.

The 1930 US Census finds the Flader family still living at 2513 Prairie Avenue in Evanston.  47 year old Fred has changed his occupation to "Building Contractor."  Calvin is the one in the family who now wears the "Plumber" mantle.  The rest of the family is ten years older but unchanged.  They told the census taker that they owned their home and it was worth $23,000.  That was significantly more than neighboring houses, but Flader's included two houses on the one lot.  They told the census taker that they did own a radio.

As the nation went deeper and deeper into the Great Depression, Flader's gross receipts tumbled.  The low point for Flader came in 1934 when his gross business for the entire year was only $10,700 - about 1/3 of his gross from the first year he was in business.  His bank was sold and his investments tied up.  National Family Stores went to the wall; some of his tenants defaulted in their rent payments.  As if all that was not bad enough, Fred's wife Elizabeth Flader died on November 6, 1934. Money was so tight that they didn't even pay for a death notice for Elizabeth in the newspapers.  Fred was quoted later as saying that at the end of 1934 there didn't seem to be any reason to keep trying.

Elizabeth Flader was a Catholic as were the children; Fred was not.  Instead of burying her in a Catholic cemetery, he instead chose Ridgewood Cemetery in Des Plaines:

As things got worse around the country, they changed dramatically at Flader Plumbing.  Fred had to fire his truck driver and most of his journeymen; he scaled his bids down "to the last stem nut;" often he took a loss on a contract just to keep his shop going.  He worked hard to make a few dollars on odd jobs here and there.  Business picked up some - to $13,000 in 1935, $24,000 in 1936, $34,000 in 1937.  But things dropped again in 1938 when it slipped to $19,900 (only 1/3 of it from new contracts) and remained about the same for 1939.

But things brightened up for Fred Flader on July 29, 1937 when he married 42 year old Wren Coles. a stenographer for the Lutheran church.

I was not able to find a listing for Fred Flader in the 1940 US Census.  I went through every listing for Evanston's Sixth Ward and there was no listing for 2513 Prairie in Evanston, although other sources reported that Fred and his family still lived there.  In fact Fred lived at 2513 Prairie until he died, but shortly after that the two houses were razed and an apartment building (now condos) was built on the spot.

The Fortune magazine article on Fred entitled "Master Plumber" was in the March, 1940 issue as was reported at the beginning of this article. Fred was held up as an American icon: a self-made man who, although bruised by the Great Depression, was not beaten.  Things were beginning to look up slightly at the end of 1939.  In the Fortune article Fred was quoted as saying, "Give me three more good years and I'll turn the business over to Calvin and live off the rents from my building."

After reporting the history of Fred and his business, the Fortune article told the reader how Fred was facing an uncertain future:

He sits at his old roll-top desk and thumbs through the ledger.  If you're in the plumbing business you can't cut much on overhead.  You have to have a display room as a kind of advertisement even if you don't sell much stuff straight off the floor.  You have to have an office and a stock room and a big stock of fittings - washers and couplings and faucet handles and nipples and sink strainers and ground joints - in an ordinary plumbing catalogue there are some 40,000 listed parts and fittings.  You must have a workshop and tools and a truck.  A journeyman can carry his own tools in his own car, the union rules, but all other tools and fittings must be carried in the master plumber's truck. You must have a journeyman, when there is any work to be done; and if he isn't there all the time he might not be there when you needed him. It isn't just because he's his father's son that Calvin is permanently on the payroll at $13.60 a day.  Flader pays an annual license fee of $25 to the state and a fee of $5 each in Evanston, Winnetka, Wilmette, Niles Center (Skokie), and Hubbard Woods where his customers live.  He must post a bond of $15,000 in each of those towns to establish his financial responsibility. He must pay permits to the city for each installation he makes.  His overhead in 1939 was almost as high as it was in 1927.    

Regularly on Flader's payroll, in addition to Calvin, are Elmer Boller, the bookkeeper, at $30 a week and Bob Moore the apprentice, at $15. Calvin, regularly earning $68 a week, makes $3,400 a year - which is $400 more than Flader paid himself as President of Fred Flader, Inc. Flader has no personal bank account.  When he needs cash he writes a check on the company and charges it to his salary.  He carries $35,000 of life insurance.  He still owes something on the building, which belongs to him, not to the corporation.  With three good years he thinks he could pay that off, retire, and live on the rents.

Then Calvin would take his master plumber's examination and run the business.  Which would suit Calvin all right.  He is thirty-two years old, a graduate of Evanston Township High School, and he has been working with plumbing tools ever since his hand was big enough to go around a wrench handle.  He took technical courses at night at Northwestern University and Armour Institute of Technology, and served his apprenticeship in his father's shop.  He is married and rents from his father the second of two houses next to the shop.  He is serious about his work, approves of his father's plumbing mathods, wants to follow in his father's steps.  He's still a journeyman, a working plumber in overalls, but on the frequent evenings when he and his wife go over for supper at his father's house, he looks like any young businessman in a striped blue suit. 

Fred Flader's second wife Wren, whom he married in 1937, cooks a special company supper for the whole family - Calvin and his wife; Margaret and her husband, Ambrose Marley; and Elizabeth, who works as a secretary for an insurance company in Chicago and lives at home.  
Fred Flader and family

The food is good and the eight room stucco and shingle house is comfortable - though it has only one bathroom, and Flader, who has installed so many shiny cabinet sinks in other kitchens, has never had time to modernize his own.  At the table there is some discussion of a movie they all saw last week, and of the war, and of politics.  Fred Flader, who listens to speeches on the radio and reads Life and the Reader's Digest as well as Domestic Engineering and Plumbing and Heating Business, keeps up with the news.  "That Dewey - there's a man for you.  He's a fighting cock.  He's a free lance.  If we had him in the White House things would be cleaned up in a hurry."  Calvin says the depression will have to be over sometime, and in good times the d-t-u's (direct-to-you dealers) can't hold out against legitimate plumbing.  Business will get better.  

Fred Flader, sitting in an armchair by the radio, smoking a cigar, comfortable in his velvet smoking jacket, talks about retiring.  It's not time yet; not till he gets this depression licked.  He is gloomy when he thinks about the red ink on the ledger, and the seven contracts out of 150 submitted bids, and the d-t-u's.  But at the same time he is tremendously pleased with his lifework.  He can't think of anything he would change. He believes firmly that, by any logical standards, he has been a success. He is not at all ashamed to be proud of what he has done for himself and for his family - and for Plumbing."

Fred Flader lived for quite a while after this magazine article about him was published - he lived another 20+ years, dying on October 11, 1962 at the age of 80.  Here is his Death Notice from the Chicago Daily Tribune of  October 13, 1962:

He was buried next to his first wife at the Ridgewood Cemetery in Des Plaines:

The business he was so proud of continued on after his death.  Upon the death of Fred Flader, Calvin Flader became owner of Flader Plumbing & Heating Co.  In 1976, Calvin retired and his two sons took over the business.  Calvin remained a consultant until his death in 1985.  William 3rd generation, and his son, Douglas, 4th generation, are continuing the legacy of the business.  Jack, the 5th generation, is in the wings and hopefully one day will follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father Douglas.

The Flader family was very proud of the article about Fred in the March, 1940 issue of Fortune magazine - they make mention of it even today, 75+ years after it was published, on the Flader Plumbing and Heating website.

Fred Flader - truly a Master Plumber - may he rest in peace.  

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