The Caretaker of Heating History
Take a walk through history in this episode with Dan Holohan and his friend Bob as they explore Doug Starbuck’s circa-1872 workshop and the treasures that lie within it.
He slid up to the registration desk like a 18-wheeler coming in for fuel. "Doug Starbuck," he said, offering me a hand that looked like a callused catcher's mitt. I shook it and checked his name off the list for the steam seminar I was about to do.
"Starbuck," I said. "That's a familiar name."
"Nothing to do with coffee,” he said. “But maybe you know R.M. Starbuck's books?"
"I sure do!" I said, making the connection. "I have a bunch in my collection. He pioneered those wonderful question-and-answer books for the trade so many years ago. That guy was great."
"He sure was," Doug said. "R.M. Starbuck was my great-granduncle. He lived and worked right here in Hartford, Connecticut. His brother was George Starbuck, my great-grandfather. And their father was George Starbuck, Sr., who was my great-great-grandfather. George, Sr. started our family business up in Turners Falls, Massachusetts back in 1872. I'm still working in that business. You ought to come see it sometime; I'm still in the same building. Got all this old stuff lying around, books and tools and inventory. Really old stuff."
The registration line was backing up, and one of the other guys had to jump in to help sign in people. I didn't notice. I was floating back more than a hundred years with Doug Starbuck, The Caretaker of Heating History.
You ride Interstate 91 straight up through Massachusetts, almost to the New Hampshire line. Get off the main highway and drive a few miles through the woods until you reach the Connecticut River. Cross the old bridge down near the mills and head for the center of town. You'll see Starbuck's shop on the left.
Doug was standing out in front, a bear of a man, waving his beefy arm and smiling at us from beneath the George Starbuck & Sons sign.
"Is that him?" my friend Bob said.
"That's him," I said, turning the van around. I'd brought Bob along because we'd grown up together in the business, and he was the first guy to show me a Starbuck book. Bob’s a Master Plumber. He and I have been in a lot of basements together and, from the way Doug described it, I thought Bob would get a kick out of this place.
"Right on time!" Doug said as I made introductions. "C'mon in the back."
We walked down the alleyway to a museum piece of a building. "This is the first shop," he said, waving his arms to take in the place. "Just this part in the back here. We built this part in 1872." He pointed up the alleyway toward the street. "The front part we built in 1888 after the business had grown. I rent part of that space to the barber these days. I'm the whole business now. I got all the space I need back here."
A weathered wooden shed connected the first floors of the two old brick buildings. Bob and I looked at each other as Doug wrestled with an old lock.
"We built this shed to connect the buildings years ago," he said, and then backing up and forgetting the lock for a moment, he pointed up toward the second floor. "See that pulley up there?" We nodded. "We used that for the stoves." He used the word "we" as though the Dead Men were waiting inside for us.
"What stoves?" I asked.
He chuckled. "That was the business back then, Dan. People heated with coal and wood stoves. We'd go to their houses in the spring, pick up their stoves, bring 'em back here, hoist 'em up to the second floor, clean 'em, retube 'em, cover 'em with newspaper. Then in the fall, we'd take 'em back with the horse and buggy and reinstall 'em. It was a good business."
Bob and I looked at each other. Doug stuck his key back in the door lock and gave it another twist. "Here we go!" he said, pushing the old door inward. "Welcome to Starbucks!"
We followed him through. Right into the past.
It's the smells you notice first. It's like an old book store smell, but there's something else there too. There's an oil-and-old-metal smell mixed in as well. And sweat from 121 years of work. And it's cold in there because of the tons of iron and steel and brass piled everywhere. And it's quiet.
"My pipe machine can cut and thread up to eight-inch," Doug said, pointing to this oily rhinoceros of a machine over there in the corner. "Most guys don't do that anymore, but I can do it if I want to." He let loose a child-like laugh that was contagious. "Most guys have never even seen one of these!" He patted the machine. Bob and I looked at each other and followed him into his office.
Now if you know me, you know that the first thing I notice anywhere I go is the heating system. I can't help it. The Lovely Marianne thinks it’s a bit of a sickness, but hey, what can you do?
Doug has ancient column radiators fed with Honeywell "Unique" valves. These valves stopped my legs from moving. They stopped Bob's too. "What's wrong?" Doug asked with a sly smile.
"I've seen those things in books, books from around 1900, but I've never seen them installed."
"Those?" Doug said with a casual shrug. "I've got plenty of those in stock. How many do you want?" He laughed again. I just shook my head in amazement because - and this is where you have to appreciate history - the "Unique" valve was one of Mark Honeywell's very first inventions. He built an empire around these things.
The valve has an inlet, an outlet and one connection to the radiator. Dead Men used these valves to control their gravity hot-water systems. They did this a hundred years ago, and Doug Starbuck was still doing it today.
"You have these in stock?" I said.
"Sure do! Got a basement full of them. How many do you need?" He smiled again. "I'll take you guys down there in a minute, but first, I thought you might want to have a look at these."
He got up from his roll-top desk and walked over to a corner where he had a big cardboard carton filled with books. "Take a look," he said. "I put these together for you last night. Thought you'd like to see them."
The box was filled to the brim with old textbooks and catalogs. Bob and I looked at each other. "We don't like to throw stuff out," Doug said. "We save everything." He spoke for five generations.
"I see that," I said as I lovingly flipped through the pages of a first edition, Hoffman Handbook. "You have more of this stuff?"
"Oh, the place is filled with all sorts of books," he said. "But you haven't seen the best part yet. C'mon."
He walked us down the hall to a staircase. "Go on down, I'll be right behind you," he said. Bob and I climbed down into a dimly lit stock room. There were rows upon rows of bins filled with fittings and valves and plumbing-and-heating specialties from a forgotten time. Each bin had a hand-lettered card that had to have been placed there 100 years old. Bob and I looked at each other.
"How about this?" Doug grunted as he picked up one of the fittings from off the floor.
"What the heck is that?" I asked.
"It's a cross. You never seen a cross before?"
"I've seen a cross, but not like that!"
"What's so strange about this?" Doug asked, a gleam in his eye. He pointed to each opening as he spoke. "It's a six- by one-and-a-half- by four- by three-inch cross. What's the big deal? I got plenty of them in stock." He laughed out loud and set the oddball fitting back on the floor. "You want three-and-a-half-inch fittings? I got 'em." He moved over to a bin and pulled out two elbows. "You want to see seven-inch steel pipe? I got a length of it upstairs. He pointed. You name it, I've got it!" He laughed out loud. Bob and I looked at each other. "We've got everything!"
I wandered over to one of the bins and saw a few dozen Webster Sylphon thermostatic radiator traps from around 1910. They were brand new. I remembered a few difficult steam jobs where I would have killed for these. There were bins filled to the brim with 1-1/2" angle, steam-radiator valves. Each must have weighed ten pounds.
"They don't make them like they used to, do they?" Bob muttered.
"They sure don't," I admitted, hefting one of the brand-new valves in my hand.
"Hey, look at this," Doug called from the other side of the room. We walked over. "This is a Robbins Cantwell pipe machine. Ain't it beautiful? It's belt-driven, and all these gears are made of wood." He poked the gears with his beefy finger.
"Does it still work?" I asked.
"Sure does! I use it all the time," he said. "That's the magic of this place. I can find just about anything I need to get a job done down here. Other guys go crazy when they have to work on an old steam system, or a hot-water system. Not me! I've got everything I need right here. Never a problem!"
Doug went on to explain how his ancestors had catered to the many paper mills that called Turners Falls, Massachusetts home once upon a time. The mills all used steam, lots of steam, and to them, time was always of the essence. The company that had the pipe, valves, fittings, and specialties in stock got the work, the others didn't.
Over the years, George Starbuck & Sons accumulated stuff - lots of stuff. The mills left, but the stuff stayed. Today, George Starbuck & Sons is a regular heating museum. Everything I've ever read about or heard about or talked about was there. And much of it was brand-new.
"You ever see anything like this?" Doug asked as he stopped at a porcelain commode with a wooden seat. He lifted the china pot out of the commode by its steel handle. "This is how you flushed it," he said with a chuckle. "And how about that!" he pointed to an old Quiet May oil burner from the 1930s sitting in the corner. "Or this!" He lifted up an old soil-pipe cutter. "I got the whole set of tools for doing that type of work," he said, getting Bob's full attention.
"I remember when we used to work only with lead," Bob said.
"So do I," Doug said. "I remember this one time when I was younger. I was doing the plumbing on a job, and there was this old heating man working there too. I'd have the lead cooking in my pot and he'd come over and stick his finger right in the lead! 'Not hot enough yet,' he'd say and walk away laughing. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how he did it. That lead was over six hundred degrees hot. Then one day I got it. I saw him sucking his finger before he put it in the pot. That's how the trick works. When your finger's wet, it keeps the lead from sticking. If you do it real fast, you don't get burned."
"Did you ever try it?" I asked.
"Oh yeah! Right away, I tried it. I wet my finger and stuck it deep in the pot. There was just one problem, though."
"I forgot to wet under my fingernail." Doug let loose an enormous laugh as he remembered the pain. "Boy, you shoulda seen me dance! That hot lead got under that nail and chewed right into the finger. Whoa!" He shook his index finger, remembering the day.
"I guess that's how we learn," Bob offered.
"You're right," Doug admitted, "but that's the trouble with a lot of the guys in the business nowadays. They don't want to learn, and they don't want to stop and think. All they want to do is replace parts. And you know why? Most of 'em don't know what the heck they're looking at. That's where they're missing out. If you have it in your head...you own it." He tapped his forehead lightly. How true that is, I thought. If you have it in your head, you own it.
We wandered over to some old Detroit regulators, controls that once used the steam from the boiler to operate the gas valve. "Ever seen these?" Doug asked. "Only in books," I admitted.
He had some of those beautiful old 12"-brass pressure gauges you see on jobs and try to snatch so you can take them home, clean them up and hang them on your wall. You know the kind I mean?
Doug Starbuck had them in quantity. Brand new.
"One time I went out to a house they were building on the other side of town," he said. "The carpenter was working with this kid apprentice. I got there at about three o'clock in the afternoon and sat down on a nail keg. I sat there for about an hour. The apprentice kept looking over at me. Finally, he asked the carpenter what I was doing. The carpenter looked over at me and went back to hammering. 'Doug's working,' he told the kid. 'Leave him alone.'
"The next morning I showed up with my drill and punched out all the holes I needed to do the whole job. I put the drill away and never took it out again. When I was piping the job out, the carpenter said to the kid, 'See, you work first in your head, and then you pick up the tools. That's the right way to do things.'"
If you have it in your head...you own it.
George Starbuck, Sr. had two sons, R.M. and George, Jr. R.M. never worked in the trade, he just moved down to Hartford and became famous as a book writer. He used what his father had taught him.
George Jr. stayed in Turners Falls and worked the business for years. He had a son and he named him Joe.
Joe begat Lloyd and Lloyd begat three sons, Doug being one of them. Doug stayed too. The others moved on and into other fields. Doug had kids but the world called them to do other things. So Doug is it, the very last Starbuck.
Somewhere along the line, one of the Starbucks installed this monster of an American Radiator Company hot water boiler. The boiler serves a gravity-fed Honeywell System that includes Honeywell's famous, mercury-filled Heat Generator, a device that, I'll bet, no more than a handful of the heating professionals in America know about. The Heat Generator was Honeywell's first significant invention, the predecessor to the hot water circulator.
Doug has one on his boiler. How about that?
They put a fuel-saver coil in the breaching a long time ago to transfer some of the heat from the flue gasses into the system water. Naturally, it made the gasses condense and it's long since rotted out, but it's still hanging there as a good lesson in basic physics and why not all products live up to their promise.
The pipes are large and odd, and covered with asbestos. The heated water rises up by its buoyancy and warms the rooms on both cold and mild days without firing the boiler too often. There's an open tank in the attic with an overflow pipe that sticks out through the roof.
Bob and I sat for a while and talked with Doug's parents who are in the Eighties and have minds as clear as mountain air. They told us stories and recalled dates and events, things that took place long before we were born. They reminded me, once again, of why I do what I do. They reminded me that it's not just money. It’s about pride. It’s about doing things the right way.
Before we left, Doug took us to the cemetery and showed us the graves. They're all there, all the Starbucks who came and went and left a bit of themselves behind on every job they did. It was a beautiful fall day and the colored leaves caressed the gravestones.
Bob and I looked at each other. If we stood real still, we could almost hear the Dead Men whispering. Be still. Listen. Hear them?
I first told this story many years ago. The place is long gone now and only the memories remain. But memories last. We just have to keep sharing them.
I hope you enjoyed this one, and if so, please share it with your friends. And please subscribe to this podcast if you haven’t already. I have many more Dead Men Tales to tell. See you next time. And thanks.