Local contracting, roofing business closes after 117 years in Seymour

The current Seymour City Hall building, both JCB locations in Seymour and the office in Brownstown, Arby’s in Seymour, the old Ponderosa and American Family Orthodontics.

Those are just a few of the local businesses that W.J. Abraham & Sons Inc. General Contractors built.

Homes in the boulevards area and Sunset Parkway in Seymour also were constructed by the company.

For 117 years, the Seymour-based business built a legacy in southern Indiana.

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William P. “Bill” Abraham Jr., who started working there in 1957, said it’s interesting to drive around the area and see homes and buildings the company had a hand in over the years.

“They are all there except for Ponderosa,” he said. “We just helped build the community. It gives you a lot of satisfaction to know that you helped build Seymour.”

The death of his cousin and the business’ co-owner, Louis F. Abraham Jr., on Jan. 13 led to Bill deciding it was time to close and retire. Bill said Louis, 74, had cancer and worked until a week before he died. He was the secretary-treasurer.

“We were short on help, and you can’t hire anybody to do this kind of work. I don’t blame kids. They don’t want to do this kind of work,” Bill said of roofing and construction. “So I told (Louis’) wife, ‘Hey, it’s time.'”

Bill, 79, said he has had trouble with his knees and shoulder and can’t do the work like he used to.

“I knew it was time,” he said.

Since the business closed earlier this spring, Bill has spent most of his time emptying the building at 749 Pershing St. Another local company already has purchased the property, and another one bought the tools and equipment.

“We had 50 years of stuff laying around here, so a lot of cleaning out to do,” he said.

Seeing the building empty took some adjusting.

“Oh yeah, but I was ready. Physically, I was ready. Mentally, not so ready, but I’m getting there,” Bill said, smiling.

The business began in 1901 as a partnership between Bill’s grandfather, William J. Abraham, and Harry Reed and operated as Abraham & Reed. Before, William, a Lawrenceburg native, had worked on the interurban railroad that ran from Jeffersonville to Seymour.

The first building constructed was for Carlson Lumber Co. on Third Street. The business soon expanded to include residential work.

When the partnership dissolved several years later, William began operating as a general contractor. One of his sons, William P., joined in 1925, and another son, Louis F., joined in 1930.

The company operated under the name of Wm. J. Abraham & Sons with William J. serving as president of the corporation, Louis as vice president and William P. as secretary-treasurer.

The first office was on the second floor of a downtown building on the northwest corner at Second and Chestnut streets.

Abraham & Sons constructed the first home in the Steigelmeier and Berry additions, now Carter, Lee and Kessler boulevards, and numerous homes in the Calvin-Dobbin addition, now known as Calvin Boulevard and Emerson Drive.

World War II halted construction for a while. William P. joined the staff of Warren and Van Prague, the engineers for Freeman Field, while Louis joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the duration of the war.

In 1947, they returned to the industry and moved to new offices at Eighth and Pershing streets.

In 1949, the business was reorganized and incorporated and became known as W.J. Abraham & Sons Inc. General Contractors.

Bill was around the business when he was 14 but didn’t start building until 1957.

“We had a lot of World War II veterans that were in construction in World War II,” Bill said. “They were all foremen, and that’s who we all learned from is those guys. That was very, very helpful.”

Learning from them was quite interesting, he said.

“Of course, they had their hands full trying to teach us young kids something,” he said, laughing.

Louis Jr. joined the corporation full time in 1966 and became president in 1971 when William J. died, serving in that position until he died in 1989. Then William P. Sr. took over, serving until his death in 1993.

The business had a retail lumber yard until 1962, and a new division of the corporation, Abraham Roofing, was formed in 1981. It specialized in the installation of Verisco rubber roofing for flat roofs.

“About half of our business was roofing — a lot of roofing,” Bill said.

Even after becoming president of the business, Bill continued to help build. He said the most memorable project was the downtown JCB building.

“It was a difficult building,” he said. “It was just a bear to build, but I got to work with the best carpenter foreman doing it, Avis Ruddick. He was a World War II veteran.”

The largest project was constructing buildings for the Seymour-based telephone company Contel. In a span of about 30 years, they built 99 of them throughout southern Indiana.

“In the beginning, they wanted a single contractor that they could depend on locally that if they had a problem, all they had to do was call us and we would go,” Bill said. “We built buildings. We painted buildings. We put roofs on them. We did anything they wanted done.”

The last big project was one of Schneider Nursery Inc.’s buildings a couple of years ago.

“We started remodeling, and the old building began to fall down, and (the owner) said, ‘I think we better just tear it down and build a new one,'” Bill said.

Knowing all of the work that is required to construct a home or a commercial building, Bill said the end result was always rewarding.

“It gives you a lot of pride to see what you started and it’s finished, just a lot of satisfaction to know that you helped do it,” he said.

For years, the company averaged around 15 employees. When it closed, Bill said there were only eight.

Anthony Temple started as a roofing foreman in the mid-1980s. In 1996, he went to work for another local roofing company. After a year and a half there, he returned to where he started.

“What I really liked about it was everybody that worked there always did a grade-A job,” Temple said of Abraham’s business. “Nobody had to redo anything because it was always grade-A work, including me and the guys I worked with and worked for.”

Temple said he liked working for Louis and Bill.

“They knew I was capable of taking care of everything and getting it done and doing a good job,” Temple said. “They knew that when I was done, it would be a grade-A job, and they could be proud of it being a part of their name. I wanted to make sure what I did was good, quality work that stood up to their name.”

Temple said he’s not sure if he wants to find another roofing job.

“It’s always an option,” he said. “I know roofing is a hard job, but I enjoyed it.”

Rhonda Claycamp spent 24 years with the company. As the office manager and bookkeeper, she did all of the bookkeeping, ordered materials for jobs in progress, did kitchen designs and handled other things that came up.

“I loved every part of the job,” she said. “I enjoyed getting to work every day, the morning powwows before everyone headed out for the day, working for a family-owned company that always supported each employee’s family life and the need to put family first.”

She said Bill and Louis invested so much of themselves into the business that it was easy to follow their lead and take care of what needed to be done.

“Losing Louie to cancer left a huge void that was impossible to replace,” Claycamp said. “Bill did all he could to keep from having to close the doors, and even when that decision was made, his concerns were helping the employees as much as possible.”

Claycamp said the reputation and work ethic built up by the Abrahams over the years helped people feel comfortable and confident having the company involved in a job, from the first phone call through the final details.

“When I started working for them 24 years ago, there was a two-year waiting list for people needing new roofs and other remodeling or new construction work,” Claycamp said. “The majority of people were more than happy to wait on their name to come up on the list because they knew we were not going to rush a job we were on just to get to the next one.

“That was incredible to me first starting that there was that much loyalty to the name, and I soon found out how that all came to be,” she said. “Advertising was something we rarely did since most of our calls were referrals and word-of-mouth conversations with those the company worked for. It was truly a pleasure to be a part of this company for so long.”

In retirement, Bill said he looks forward to spending more time with his family, including fishing and occasionally going down to their home in Florida.

“We used to fish a lot, but work got in the way of that, so maybe we’ll do that,” he said. “After doing this 60 years, I’ve kind of got to retrain my mind and body to start slowing down. Doing nothing is not something I want to do.”