Oak Cliff history: A bygone family plumbing business left its mark

Chris Nix, Sr. opened Nix Plumbing in the 1950s and “plumbed a huge end of Oak Cliff.” Photo courtesy of Bob Nix
Chris Nix, Sr. opened Nix Plumbing in the 1950s and “plumbed a huge end of Oak Cliff.” Photo courtesy of Bob Nix

In 1954 Chris Nix Sr. and his wife, Florene, packed up their three sons and all their earthly possessions and left post-Word War II Scott County, Ark. (one of the poorest counties in the country where no jobs were available). They traveled 10 hours to Dallas with furniture roped onto the exterior of their 1948 Dodge.

“We looked like the Joads,” quips their third son, Randy.

When the family settled in Oak Cliff and opened a small plumbing business out of their home, none of them could have imagined the difference the move would make for their family and others. With a work ethic to rival most anyone, the late Chris Sr. began building a successful business, where he hired additional workers, purchased more equipment and vehicles and continued to move to larger facilities. Nix Plumbing thrived and soon included a small fleet of service trucks and employees.

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Nix Plumbing operated at 2107 S. Beckley,  one of several Oak Cliff locations. Photos courtesy of Bob Nix
Nix Plumbing operated at 2107 S. Beckley, one of several Oak Cliff locations. Photos courtesy of Bob Nix

Florene did the office work — developing her own unique bookkeeping system — while also taking care of the boys and the house and then adding another son, Bobby, to the family. “I started at home from the day we opened,” Florene says, “and then full-time when we moved [the office] to [2107 S.] Beckley.”

Chris Sr. hired and trained good, dependable workers, mostly young family men whom he encouraged to expand their knowledge and turn themselves into skilled tradesmen; many of these employees worked for Nix Plumbing for 20 years. “There were also some who would come and go,” says Bobby. “A few ex-cons, a few medical students.” Nix was an equal-opportunity employer.

According to the boys, when each reached the age of 12, it was automatic: They went to work for their dad. But hard work wasn’t the only quality Chris Sr. instilled in his boys. He also taught them ingenuity.

When Interstate 35E was under construction, Nix Plumbing received the contract to strip all the plumbing from the vacant lots where hundreds of Oak Cliff houses had been removed. Always recognizing an opportunity, Chris Sr. and his boys “relocated” some of the grass and shrubbery. According to son Charles, “Our new house on Mystic Trail was completely landscaped and sodded that way.”

Florene Nix handled all the bookeeping for her husband’s business.
Florene Nix handled all the bookkeeping for her husband’s business.

When the family moved again, they relocated to Wynnewood Hills, where the Nix house stood out among the neighborhood of upscale residences. They had a mini-farm in the back and side yard.

“Dad actually grew corn, okra and tomatoes,” chuckles Chris Jr. The Nix family’s neighbors — some of whom had grown up on farms, and those who had grown up during the Great Depression (where many had little to eat and used their yards to grow food) and experienced World War II (when Americans were urged to grow Victory Gardens) — recognized the sight, appreciated Chris Sr.’s ingenuity and often asked him for some of the bounty at harvest time.

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Nix Plumbing expanded significantly during the residential building boom in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. According to Charles, “When Dad hooked up with the contractors, we plumbed a huge end of Oak Cliff.”

Then, although he had limited formal education, Chris Sr. became an expert on plumbing engineering and even had an office in downtown Dallas, where he advised numerous top-notch chief engineers during the commercial building boom of the 1970s. Primarily, Nix did remodeling and retrofitting on existing buildings, which included the Merchandise Mart, One Main Place, Wonder Bread, the Federal Reserve Bank and a long list of others. “After Dad established good relationships with the chief engineer-types, little jobs turned into big jobs,” Chris Jr. says. “When Nix Plumbing was hired to do a job, it got done professionally.”

But the most popular project with the boys? The American Airlines Stewardess Training Center (in the day when all the flight attendants were young females).

“We would all beg … beg our dad to let us go to the training center, hoping and praying,” Randy remembers with enthusiasm. “Versus drooling and lusting,” Charles says, with a big grin.

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Nix also performed residential repairs, and over the years had locations on Patton, South Beckley, Marsalis at Saner, Edgefield at Pioneer, and in Cockrell Hill, downtown Dallas and later Duncanville and DeSoto.

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Because of the family’s multiple moves around Oak Cliff, at least one of the Nix boys attended Winnetka, Peabody, Marsalis, Peeler and Mark Twain elementary schools, and Browne, Atwell and Zumwalt junior highs. The oldest son, Chris Jr., attended Kimball High School. When David W. Carter High School opened in 1966, Charles, as a junior (there was no senior class), was elected as the first student council president and served two years. The next year Randy served in the same office, followed four years later by Bobby. Joking among the group, they call themselves “the triumvirate.”

At 6 feet 10 inches, and with the campaign slogan “I Stand Head and Shoulders Over My Competition,” Bobby reused “Nixon for President” bumper stickers. Blacking out the “on” in “Nixon,” he slapped the stickers on all the cars in the school parking lot. Evidently, it worked.

The boys all played sports and also worked for the business, when available. “But when two-a-days rolled around,” Randy says, “we were ready to go. Football was easier.”

Among the four boys, three earned master plumber licenses, and three have college degrees.

Chris Sr. retired in 1986, dissolving one of the three divisions he had built and selling the others to family, although all eventually closed. He died in 1988.

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Sitting at Florene’s kitchen table at her home in Red Oak, we all wait for her to arrive … from work! At age 84 she keeps the books for her brother-in-law, who trained under her husband and now operates his own plumbing business. She continues to use her same bookkeeping system — one that stumped (and still stumps) the IRS.

“Dad was a poor, undereducated man raised on a farm, from a part of Arkansas that was boondock-poor,” Randy says, “who became a man who trained others, operated a thriving business and advised chief engineers. Remarkable.”

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