The Rockefeller legacy

Cleveland first met John D. Rockefeller when he was a 16-year-old youth who spent his days scouring the lumber mills and iron foundries along the banks of the Cuyahoga River looking for work.

After more than a month of searching, he finally landed a job at Hewitt and Tuttle in September 1855, earning roughly $500 a year.

Forty-five years later, at the turn of the century, Rockefeller was one of the wealthiest men in the world. He was also one of America’s most despised business leaders, due largely to the efforts of muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell. In newspaper columns, Rockfeller’s Standard Oil Co. was often painted as a monopolistic octopus that controlled 90 percent of the U.S. market and put honest people out of work.

“When Rockefeller was accused of hurting other people and driving them out of business, he would argue he was simply offering them a fair deal for their property,” explains John J. Grabowski, director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society. “What he did by buying them out was avoid mass confusion and stabilize the market.”

No matter how one views Rockefeller’s business practices, there is no question the success of Standard Oil, headquartered at the time near Public Square, had a profound impact on Cleveland. By the time Rockefeller moved to New York in 1885, Cleveland had been transformed from a merchant village to a roaring industrial hub filled with steel, shipping and chemical companies.

Meanwhile, Rockefeller donated millions to local charities and invested in other businesses that cropped up across the city. He became a one-man engine of change and the history of Rockefeller and the history of Cleveland are tightly intertwined.

“We’re talking about the person who became the richest man in the world,” says Darwin H. Stapleton, director of the Rockefeller Archive in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. “Almost everything he did, over time anyway, affected Cleveland one way or another.”

After spending a few years at Hewitt and Tuttle in the 1850s, a young Rockefeller opened his own commissions house and generated a small fortune during the Civil War.

Then he turned his full attention toward oil, a risky and unpredictable industry.

“There was heavy pollution of the river, and oil refineries went up in flames one after another,” says Grabowski. “The oil fields in Pennsylvania were either boom or bust in terms of price. The bottom would fall out because of overproduction, then they’d cut back and the price would go up.”

Rockefeller bought into a small oil company, Andrews, Clark & Co., in 1863. Seven years later, and firmly under his control, it was reorganized as the Standard Oil Co. Rockefeller quickly captured the bulk of the industry through aggressive acquisitions of smaller companies, a move that finally started to balance the unpredictable market. At the same time, he implemented business practices that were previously unheard of in the wildcat oil industry.

Grabowski tells a well-known tale of Rockefeller’s visit to the factory where his workers made barrels to ship kerosene. When Rockefeller noticed the employees used 22 drops of solder to seal each barrel, he asked if they could use 20 instead. When the new barrels leaked, he instructed them to use 21 drops of solder. Those barrels didn’t leak, and Rockefeller saved one drop of solder on every barrel made.

“That was the type of mentality that drove him,” says Grabowski. “I think what epitomizes the late 19th century is rationalization, order and scientific management of business. The thing Rockefeller brought to Cleveland, and to the industry in general, was a rationality and focus.”

Once Rockefeller established his company as an industry giant, other businesses that supplied — and relied on — oil flocked to Cleveland in the hopes of cashing in on Standard Oil’s market dominance.

In 1866, Eugene Grasselli, the owner of Cincinnati’s Grasselli Chemical Co. (known then as E. Grasselli & Son), built a plant on Independence Road near Broadway to manufacture the sulfuric acid needed by the city’s growing number of oil refineries.

“The presence of chemical manufacturing in Cleveland then makes it a lot easier for Glidden and Sherwin-Williams to produce paints,” says Grabowski. “There’s all these little connections that come out of Standard Oil.”

In 1873, Sherwin-Williams bought Standard Oil’s cooperage building on Canal Street for its first factory, where it manufactured paints, paste, oil colors and putty. Although Sherwin-Williams executives closed the 100-year-old Canal plant in 1982, the company still has 3,200 of its approximately 18,000 employees in the state of Ohio, primarily in Cleveland. Since 1930, its corporate offices have been located at the Midland Building on Prospect, which was once the Cleveland headquarters for Standard Oil.

Forest City Paint & Varnish came to Cleveland in 1875 before later becoming Glidden Varnish Co. and then Glidden Co. The company operated in Cleveland as an independent company until the 1960s, when it merged with Smith Corona Machines. Glidden’s aging Cleveland paint plant was phased out in 1976.

Many of the links between Standard Oil and other companies, however, were not the result of dependence upon oil. Instead, they were created by Rockefeller’s deep pockets. He invested in the Cleveland Arcade Co., Otis and Iron Steel (later absorbed into U.S. Steel), Euclid Avenue Bank and the Merchants National Bank.

Rockefeller also loaned money to Marcus Hanna, an iron and coal merchant who bought the Euclid Avenue Opera House in 1870 before forming Cleveland City Railway Co. in the 1880s.

“It was a time when, often for the really big money, you turned to another person instead of the banks,” says Stapleton. “In many ways, JDR was acting as a private banker by the 1880s. He was loaning out big chunks of money.”

Rockefeller’s impact on Cleveland stretches beyond the business world. As his wealth grew from his success in Cleveland, the amount he invested back into the community increased as well.

As a young businessman in 1856, he donated $19 to local charities. That figure grew to $250,000 by 1887, and $1.3 million by 1892. The lengthy list of organizations that benefited from his generosity often included ones in which Rockefeller himself was a member, such as the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church, Western Reserve Historical Society, Early Settlers Association of the Western Reserve and the YMCA.

“The demands on him for charity were extraordinary,” says Grabowski. “As he got wealthier and wealthier, thousands of letters came in saying, ‘I need help.’ He hired someone to handle that, almost like a giving department . . . What’s interesting is this was in a tax-free world, where there was no benefit to giving your money away.

“It’s often said that Rockefeller and (Andrew) Carnegie competed with each other to see who could be the most benevolent.”

Other benefactors of Rockefeller’s charitable donations included the Children’s Aid Society, Bethel Union, Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Dorcas Home for invalids and Children’s Fresh Air Camp. Later, Rockefeller donated $850,000 worth of land for use as public parks. He established the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1901, the General Education Board in 1902 and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913.

Even after such a lengthy relationship with Cleveland, Rockefeller’s last days in Cleveland set off a bitter tax dispute with county officials.

During the winter of 1913-1914, Rockefeller lived at his Forest Hills estate on the East Side of Cleveland, tending to his ailing wife Cettie. Although he had paid taxes as an official resident of New York since the 1880s, he could not leave Cleveland by the Feb. 3 tax deadline because of his wife’s frail condition, a move that triggered rabid pursuit by county tax collectors.

“To Cuyahoga County, this obviously looked like manna from heaven,” says Grabowski. “Here’s the world’s richest man and he’s suddenly liable for personal property taxes. They went after him with a vengeance. When Cettie died, he left and he never returned after that, except to be buried.”

The dogged persistence with which county officials trailed Rockefeller during the tax dispute, which was ruled illegal by the courts, seemed to taint Rockefeller’s relationship with Cleveland. In Ron Chernow’s voluminous biography “Titan,” he cites an archived interview in which Rockefeller compared his new home of New York to his hometown: “New York has always treated me more fairly than Cleveland, much more.”

But he also admitted that despite this tainted mark, Cleveland offered one business benefit few other commerce centers at the time could — access to different transportation networks. For a business that moved its product in large volume, Rockefeller found Cleveland strategically located. He often played the railways against the waterways, with a low transportation price his valuable prize.

Stapleton does not buy into the fact that Rockefeller ever really deserted Cleveland.

“The whole idea that he somehow abandons Cleveland is nutty from my perspective because he had a love for it,” says Stapleton. “It’s not true that he ever abandoned Cleveland, just that his wealth became too large for the city.”

As Stapleton points out, the tax dispute did not entirely sever Rockefeller’s ties to the city. In 1918, he started the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation in honor of his wife, while art owned by his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., resides at the Cleveland Museum of Art to this day.

But the truest statement of the millionaire’s love for Cleveland can be found along Euclid Avenue. Inside the gates of Lake View cemetery, among rows of grave markers, is an enormous Egyptian obelisk that towers above them all. Engraved on its base is one word: Rockefeller.

How to reach: The Western Reserve Historical Society, (216) 721-5722; Rockefeller Archive, (914) 366-6308

Jim Vickers ([email protected]) is an associate editor at SBN.