George Ray Sr., Ellsworth’s Master Plumber, Passes the Wrenches to the Next Generation
By Rich Hewitt
Courtesy The Ellsworth American

Originally published July 16 1998

ELLSWORTH—From cast iron pipe to PVC plastic, George M. Ray Sr. has seen the world of plumbing change dramatically over the past 40 years. In that time, he took what a one-man operation and built Ray Plumbing and Heating into one of the largest and busiest plumbing and heating companies in eastern Maine.

“We did the original Ellsworth Shopping Center and the Maine Coast Mall. I’d guess we’ve been involved with about two-thirds of the buildings that have been developed here over the years.”
—George Ray Sr.

George Ray Sr., who has handed over his plumbing business to his sons and son-in-law, will still be on hand to help with job estimates and pressure calculations and project preparation.
— STAFF PHOTO BY RICH HEWITT
 

Now, Ray is ready to turn over the business to a younger generation. His company will be succeeded by the new Ray Plumbing and Heating run by two of his sons, George Jr. and Daniel, and his son-in-law, Earl Archer.

They don’t expect to make any major changes.

“His way has worked good for 40 years, why change it?” said George Jr. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“I expect it will be business as usual,” Archer added.

For the past several years, George Jr. and Archer have managed the business during the winters while the elder Ray and his wife, Betty, have been in Florida. They will be joined by Daniel who for the past decade or so has run his own plumbing business.

Ray was drawn to plumbing naturally, but not without some objections. His father and four “big” brothers were plumbers, so he had an early exposure to the business. But his mother wanted him to do something else. So, after graduating from Ellsworth High School in 1950, young George went to work for a local dry cleaner.

When the business needed an overhaul, George’s father was hired to do the plumbing and George helped out.

“There was a lot of piping to be done, and I just loved it,” he said. “When the job was done, I was just bored to tears. I knew I wanted to do something mechanical.”

He left dry cleaning and worked two winters with his brother in Florida, spending summers working for the Babson and Duffy plumbing company in Blue Hill.

“I learned an awful lot from them,” he said.

But in the spring of 1957, things were slow for Babson and Duffy, and Ray did some jobs on his own while waiting for business to pick up.

“For two weeks, I had all kinds of work,” he said. “I got my master plumber’s license on May 15, and I thought I’d give it a try on my own and see what happened.”

He hasn’t looked back since.

Ray ran the business from his home, with his wife, Betty, serving as bookkeeper and later as comptroller, a post she filled until her retirement in 1995.

“Betty has been a constant part of the business,” he said. “She retired in 1995, but she still looks over our shoulders, even now.”

By 1959, Ray Plumbing and Heating had six employees, two of whom, Bob Seavey and Gordon Grindle, are still with the company. That was the year Ray bought the former J.P. Eldridge Co. and moved into the company’s building located at what is now One Printing House Square, which houses The Ellsworth American’s presses. Still growing, the company moved to High Street in 1962 and then to its present location off High Street in the 1980s. The facility includes the company’s offices, a parts and repairs department and the showroom.

Although the showroom contains primarily home fixtures, which account for a portion of the company’s business, Ray Plumbing and Heating also has made a name for itself in the world of commercial and industrial projects.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes in Ellsworth and we’ve done parts of major projects as they’ve come along,” he said. “We did the original Ellsworth Shopping Center and the Maine Coast Mall. I’d guess we’ve been involved with about two-thirds of the buildings that have been developed here over the years.”

But the company’s efforts have not been restricted to Ellsworth. They’ve done hospital, hotel and apartment building jobs throughout eastern Maine including projects at the Mid Maine Medical Center in Waterville, Parker Ridge in Blue Hill, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor, Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth and The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. Ray also did the work for the Mount Desert Island High School, one of the company’s first big jobs.

“That was one of those jobs that just went along smoothly,” he said. “It was something I was really proud of when we were finished.”

One of the most challenging projects Ray has done was for the Robertson Lumber Co. in Searsmont where he helped the company start generating its own power.

“We designed a wood furnace and a steam boiler so they could burn scrap wood to generate electricity,” he said. “It was a big task and it was a learning experience. It wasn’t anything I’d run into before, so I had to do some studying. It was fun.”

Fun and quality service have been the two hallmarks of Ray’s company from the beginning, he said.

“One thing that has made us successful is that we’ve always tried to do the best job we possibly could and we’ve always been honest with people,” he said. “And the customers and employees have always been my friends. That’s something I’ve always felt. It’s always made work fun. It’s been fun for me and I’ve tried to make it fun for everyone who worked with me.”

Over the years, Ray has been active in community and industry organizations. He has been president of the Maine Plumbers Association, and served three terms on the association’s examining board, including a stint as the chair of that board. In addition, he held classes at his business for his own employees and others in the area.

He served on the Energy Conservation Task Force for the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors.

He has served on the board of directors for the James Russell Wiggins Down East Family YMCA for 16 years, serving two terms as chair of that board. He chaired the board during the planning for the construction of the Y facility on Outer State Street.

A member of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, Ray also has served on the board of Maine Coast Memorial Hospital  and has been a member of the Rotary for 32 years. He also started the northern division of the Maine State Golf Association.

He’s an avid bridge player and he also loves to golf. He boasts five holes in one during the past two decades, one of which won him a new car.

While he plans to follow those pursuits, Ray will not leave the business altogether. He will still have an office next to his son’s, and last week was still busy inspecting prospective projects and figuring estimates.

“I still do some estimates and I solve problems,” he said, pointing to pages of pressure readings and diagrams he’s prepared for a job. “Some of those problems take a lot of concentration. That’s what I do best.”