In the early 1940’s, 16-year-old James Middlebrooks started a fledgling business repairing radios. He called it Star Radio, but his idea wasn’t part of a long-term business endeavor or any plan. It began because radio was the standard medium for the public’s information and entertainment, and when owners needed theirs repaired, this industrious teen had the knowledge to get it done.
A few years later, Middlebrooks became acquainted with the owner of a popular Saline County restaurant known as The Spot. He went to work in the kitchen learning the art of barbeque, rising to the rank of pit master.
That unexpected talent eventually took the young Middlebrooks from Benton to Fontana, California, where he worked for the same business owner who’d decided to take his business and his barbeque to the West Coast. There, the two opened a small eatery, appropriately named Mr. Arky’s.
As expected, Middlebrooks’ barbeque was a hit, drawing diners that included celebrities Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez as regulars. The couple would often share meals with the young man who had been fixing radios a few years ago, now becoming a cook to the stars.
In 1945, Middlebrooks decided it was time to come home to Arkansas.
Upon arriving back in Saline County, he didn’t reopen Star Radio or his own barbeque pit. Instead, Middlebrooks realized that, in addition to their radios, people now owned televisions and they were having their homes wired for electricity. So as you might expect, he started a new business repairing radios and televisions and wiring homes for a new utility that was becoming commonplace for homeowners.
From that decision, Middlebrooks Electric/Heating & Air got its start.
“The first house daddy ever wired was for Mr. Henry Gingles,” said Greg Middlebrooks, president of Middlebrooks Electric/Heating & Air. ‘It was a small rent house, and daddy put in one light and one receptacle, which was for the radio.”
Within the next dozen years, James Middlebrooks added appliance and HVAC repair to his growing list of services. It appeared his philosophy became, if it had an electrical current running through it, Middlebrooks wanted to be the person who could fix it.
Greg Middlebrooks recalled a story of a friend who, while going through some old family files, found a check her grandfather had written to Middlebrooks Electric in 1962. “It was for $5 to fix an attic fan, probably a broken belt. Can you imagine something like that costing so little? How times have changed!”
Seventy-five years later, the jobs have grown much larger, and customers from across Central Arkansas still turn to Middlebrooks Electric/Heating & Air for electrical, HVAC or appliance service. However, for Greg, 60, and his brother and company vice president, Allen, 55, electricity has always just been a way of life.
“Me and my brother were raised in this business, and really, this is all I know,” he said. “I started working with daddy when I was in the third grade. I would work with him every summer, and when I was in junior high school, I would ride my motorcycle to wherever he was working.
“When I graduated high school, I learned to work on Heating/Air units, washers and dryers, all types of appliances,” he added.
Through the next forty years, the Middlebrooks family continued working closely together. James oversaw the company’s operational needs while Greg and Allen managed the electrical and heating/air service. James’ wife, Bobbi, managed the company’s financial responsibilities.
“I graduated in 1979, and back then, it was just daddy and me,” Greg said. “Allen graduated high school in the 80’s and he started working with us then, too.
“Daddy would often tell me, ‘God owns this company, and He picked us to run it.’ He left us a legacy, and Allen and me were lucky to fall into it. He taught us everything we know.”
James Middlebrooks passed away in 2012, and keeping their father’s perspective as the company’s focus, Greg and Allen have taken Middlebrooks Electric/Heating & Air to unexpected heights. The company, which started as the four family members, has grown to include 25 employees, including a chief administrative officer, Gwen Sample, and a chief operations officer, Blake Massey.
That growth has taken place to meet the demands of what Greg and Allen recognized was a changing business.
“The electrical business evolves so quickly, and we have to keep up with all of those changes to best serve our customers,” he said. “When me and Allen were younger, growing up with a business, we did a lot of residential service work. Now, 98 percent of the work we do is commercial service. Instead of meeting with homeowners, these days we’re meeting and working with the managers of Harps Food, Cracker Barrel or Big Red Valeros.”
Middlebrooks Electric/Heating & Air will celebrate its 75th anniversary this year, and with that milestone, changes are on the way. Notably, the demand for the company’s services means Greg and Allen will soon expand operations with new offices in Conway and Hot Springs.
“We’re growing quickly, and we’re going to have to branch out,” Greg said. “Our specialists are going to Hot Springs at least three times a week, and we go to Conway once a day. If we’re heading up there multiple times, it may be time to expand that way.”
It’s an impressive history that shares a valuable story about family, faith and the value of hard work. And to think, it all started thanks to a man who once prepared barbecue for the stars of I Love Lucy.