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January 24, 2013

19th century Huntsville store buys 19th century Athens store

W.E. Estes & Son changing hands

— In 1952, 12-year-old Buzz Estes began working for his father at W.E. Estes & Son in Athens, earning 25 cents a day.

“Back then, I could leave work, see a movie at the Ritz and stop off for a hamburger and Coke with a day’s wage,” said Buzz, now president of the company. “How many people can do that today?”

Buzz and the family store that graced the Athens downtown since 1900 are about to take a new direction. A Huntsville plumbing, heating, air-conditioning and electric business with even more years under its belt has purchased the 113-year-old Athens plumbing, heating, air-conditioning and electrical service business at 103 W. Washington St.

Jim Batson, owner of 129-year-old H.C. Blake Co., plans to offer the same services as Estes & Son, and more. The company will offer energy assessments using the latest technology, strategies for lowering power cost as well as rebates and very-low interest loans to get the work done at a significant savings.

Batson said he wants residents to know that H.C. Blake intends to be as much a part of the Athens community as his sixth-generation business is in Huntsville.

“We want to work with the community to use the warehouse and half the front office space to bring art and culture to the downtown,” Batson said.

He plans to lease the front part of the store to a new business in need of nurturing. He will also lease about three-quarters of the old cotton warehouse behind the store to Art On The Square, a nonprofit organization created by volunteers to support artists, promote art education and bring cultural events to Athens and Limestone County.

“The warehouse will be used for artists to work and display their artwork,” said Trisha Black, executive director of Spirit of Athens.

Currently, he and a crew are cleaning out the old warehouse behind the business, which is stuffed with old equipment gathered over the ages.

“I plan to keep some of the older stuff and use it in the business,” said Batson, who has a love of history.

“We are going to remodel throughout and take it into the next century while retaining its artistic and historic value,” he said.

One thing will not change at the downtown landmark. Buzz plans to stay on as a public-relations liaison for H.C. Blake.

“We hope to see Buzz around as long as he wants to be,” said Batson, who believes Estes’ familiarity with Athens and its people and history will be a selling point.

Along with Buzz, Tommy Marr, a former TVA employee, will serve as operations manager at the business.

Buzz is in the process of moving some of his papers and equipment out so H.C. Blake can begin to remodel and move in. It is quite an undertaking.

“A business this old gathers a lot over the course of 100 years,” Buzz said.

What prompted him to sell the family business after so many years?

“The fact that I am 72 entered into it,” said Buzz. “Business started getting in the way of our other interests.” Estes is a noted Civil War historian and active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and his wife, Doris, who worked alongside him at the business, is active in genealogy and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

It was Buzz’s grandfather, William Edwin Estes, who started the family business at the dawn of the 20th century, selling general merchandise and furnishing on the Square. W.E.’s son — W.E. “Pete” Estes Jr. — took over from his father. As times changed, so did the merchandise and services Estes & Son offered.

“It changed about every five to 10 years,” Buzz said, noting that it eventually evolved   into a plumbing, heating, air-conditioning and electrical service business.

With two daughters  — Anne McCoy Estes Hearn and Elizabeth Claire Estes Mooney — whose interests lie outside of the HVAC business, Buzz seems satisfied that Batson has both a love for the business and for the preservation of history.

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