The Other Half of Standard Oil: John D. Rockefeller Has Dominated the Story of Standard Oil. but Few Entrepreneurs in History Have Accomplished as Much as His Partner, Henry Flagler, Who Transformed the Company and Later Made Florida into a Powerhouse of Tourism and Agriculture

By Gordon, John Steele | The American (Washington, DC), September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Other Half of Standard Oil: John D. Rockefeller Has Dominated the Story of Standard Oil. but Few Entrepreneurs in History Have Accomplished as Much as His Partner, Henry Flagler, Who Transformed the Company and Later Made Florida into a Powerhouse of Tourism and Agriculture


Gordon, John Steele, The American (Washington, DC)


In all of American industrial history, perhaps only Henry Ford is more closely identified with the company he founded than is John D. Rockefeller.

In the 1860s, Rockefeller was just one of many entrepreneurs seeking to exploit the possibilities opened up by the brand-new technology of drilling for oil. No one outside the aborning industry had ever heard of him. But by 1880, Rockefeller's Standard Oil controlled 80 percent of the by-then vastly larger American oil refining business. In 1902 Ida Tarbell began serializing "The History of the Standard Oil Company" in McClure's Magazine. She very deliberately made Rockefeller the personification of the company. The book, published in 1904, was a phenomenal best seller and, while highly tendentious, extremely influential.

By the time Standard Oil was ordered broken up by the Supreme Court in 1911, to most people, Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller were one and the same. And by that time, of course, Rockefeller was the richest man in the world, with a net worth that exceeded the U.S. national debt.

But Standard Oil was never a one-man operation even in its earliest days. Soon after entering the oil business fulltime, Rockefeller had taken on as partner an Englishman named Samuel Andrews. A gifted chemist and mechanic, Andrews made numerous important improvements in refining methods. If the Rockefeller refineries were more efficient than others, Samuel Andrews was the reason.

Later, Standard Oil often acquired other refineries and, if it was interested in bringing the management into the Standard Oil operation, would offer them a very good deal. Such major figures in Standard Oil history as Charles Pratt, Henry H. Rogers, and John D. Arehbold joined the company in this way.

But there was a figure far more important to the history of Standard Oil than Andrews, who took no part in the management of the enterprise, or the later major figures who managed it superbly. This was Henry M. Flagler.

Rockefeller and Flagler were so close in the early days that they functioned virtually as a single entity as they designed and executed the strategy that allowed Standard Oil to dominate the oil industry. Astonishingly, Flagler would go on to a second triumph on his own, turning the state of Florida from a subtropical wilderness into a tourist mecca and agricultural powerhouse. Few entrepreneurs in the history of capitalism accomplished as much as Henry Flagler.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How important to the story of Standard Oil is he? Well, consider this. In later years, a reporter asked John D. Rockefeller whose idea it had been to transform the partnership of Rockefeller, Andrews, and Flagler into the corporation called Standard Oil.

"I wish I'd had the brains to think of it," Rockefeller replied. "It was Henry M. Flagler."

Like Rockefeller, Flagler was born in upstate New York, just as the new Erie Canal was transforming what had been a semi-frontier into an area of quickly growing prosperity. Nine years older than Rockefeller, Flagler was born in 1830. His father was an itinerant Presbyterian minister who spent his whole life on the edge of poverty. In an age when early death was still common, both of his parents had been married twice before and, indeed, Flagler had been named for his mother's first husband, Henry Morrison. She had had a son, Daniel Harkness, by her second husband, eight years older than Henry. Flagler's father had had two daughters by his first wife and one by his second.

After completing the eighth grade, a fairly good education by the standards of the mid-19th century, Flagler decided to leave home and seek his fortune in Ohio, where his half-brother Dan was living with his Harkness relatives. He walked the nine miles to the Erie Canal and caught a freight boat, working with the crew in lieu of paying a fare. He took a boat from Buffalo to Sandusky, Ohio, and walked the 30 miles to the town of Republic, where Dan was living. …

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