Tuesday, December 26, 2006


(News-Herald, June 2002)Of all the notable historical figures to pass through Venango County, none may be more difficult to unravel than John D. Rockefeller. I’ve recently finished Ron Chernow’s biography of him, Titan.
The advent of the oil industry shows how a variety of threads can converge in one critical moment. If medical charlatans had not packaged the obnoxious black goo as medicine, then George Bissell might not have been tempted to explore its worth as an illuminant. If the rise of industrial and urban America had not created a greater demand for artificial light, few might have cared about his idea. It took a laboratory chemist (Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale) to prove Bissell’s idea had merit, and a batch of capitalist investors to dispatch Edwin Drake to Pennsylvania. And Drake needed the assistance of laborer Uncle Billy Smith to figure out how to get the whole thing accomplished.
And when all tarnation broke loose, it took someone to take the many far-flung pieces of the puzzle and tie them together.
We think of the oil boom as a sort of uninterrupted explosion of money, but it didn’t work that way. People smelled money; they drilled wells. Oil was suddenly as plentiful as raspberries, and the price plummeted. Men’s holdings were suddenly worth nothing, and they went out of business. Then there were fewer producers, so oil was rare, and the price went up. So more people went into the business, and oil was as plentiful as raspberries. Rinse and repeat.
It’s no wonder that there are empty fields that were once cities in our area.
Rockefeller saw that a free market can be an ugly, brutal, wasteful thing. But with that volatility comes an opportunity to bring control and order.
What Rockefeller did was simple; he bought every oil-related business he could get his hands on. He knew the business; he visited our area, traveling through the oil fields. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty as he learned. One of the first acquisitions of the new Standard Oil Company was Miller and Sibley’s Galena Oil Company. And just over a decade after Drake’s triumph, Rockefeller controlled the refining and the transportation of oil.
Rockefeller was himself the product of a deeply religious mother and a charming con-man father. Some of Rockefeller’s techniques were brutal, but not illegal. At the bottom of the business cycle there were plenty of businesses for sale cheap; Rockefeller bought them. This did not make him many friends; it’s easy to feel bitter toward a man who profits from your own business mistakes.
Some of his techniques were not so ethical. Most notorious was the system whereby Standard Oil not only was paid a kickback from the railroad for the oil they shipped, but for the oil shipped by their competitors.
Rockefeller’s company was not much-loved in these parts. When word of the South Improvement Company conspiracy leaked out , Captain J. B. Barbour threw an SIP official through the big plate glass window of the Exchange Hotel.
Odd to think of Venango County as hot-bed of turmoil, intrigue, and controversy, but there it was. Local drillers tried to organize boycotts to hurt Standard Oil by cutting off its supply of oil. There were even processions, led by the band, out to wells for symbolic shutdowns. Three thousand angry people gathered at the Titusville Opera House to denounce the “great anaconda.” But the small operators could never keep their ranks closed. Ironically, one of the speakers at the Titusville rally was John Archbold, destined to become Rockefeller’s successor at Standard Oil. Titusville also produced Rockfeller’s great journalistic adversary, Ida Tarbell.
Rockefeller spent decades avoiding the law. His life as a fugitive began in 1879 when a Clarion County grand jury indicted him and eight other Standard Oil officials. To the best of my knowledge, they never got a piece of him.
Rockefeller was a devout Baptist who considered oil country a moral cesspool of loose women and indecent men. Once, while staying at the Exchange, he refused to go to help save his oil barrels from flooding because it was Sunday.
He pumped millions into philanthropy, setting the stage for numerous modern medical advances. He was one of the great supporters of higher education for African-Americans.
Many look at his brutal business techniques and his Christianity and wonder how much of a hypocrite he had to be. Chernow thinks the two sides were not in that much conflict, that Rockefeller felt that his business triumph was his own mission from God. But in Venango County we’re still reluctant to lay claim to him, to say we knew him when.

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