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John D. Rockefeller remade Cleveland and the world: PD 175

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PD 175th anniversary: John D. Rockefeller
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Gallery: PD 175th anniversary: John D. Rockefeller

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Ten years ago, both a Plain Dealer panel and a readers' poll voted John D. Rockefeller the most influential Clevelander ever.

Make that influential American, and he should still rank high.

His Standard Oil company was worth an estimated $600 million, or $14.6 billion today, far more than any previous business. It refined at least 90 percent of the world's oil, mostly turning out kerosene for lamps and gasoline for cars. It helped pioneer trusts, vertical monopolies, self-insurance and industrial research.

Historians estimate that Rockefeller was worth $900 million and donated $530 million, both records for back then. The gifts freed slaves, created Spelman College, ended hookworm, developed social research and much more. Locally, he created parklands and launched nonprofits from Little Italy's Alta House to the historically black Eliza Bryant Village.

Rockefeller wore paper vests and monogrammed onyx cufflinks. He refused pay for years, slashed dividends and, borrowed millions. He doled out dimes but scolded a local newsboy--the future Bob Hope--for lacking change.

The Baptist taught Sunday school and prayed on tavern floors. But aides and allies spied on rivals, undersold them and denied them supplies. They also killed strikers and their families.

Slang columnist Peter Finley Dunne called him a "society f'r th' previntion of croolty to money." Others called him "The Mephistopheles of Cleveland."

John Davison Rockefeller was born in 1839 near the Finger Lakes to a philandering peddler of snake oil and his pious bride. When John was 12, the family started shuttling between Cleveland and its surroundings, including Strongsville and Parma.

Rockefeller went to Central High and what evolved into Dyke and Myers colleges. At 16, he started clerking in the Flats. At 19, he co-founded a wholesaling firm there.

In 1863, he joined the new oil industry, co-founding a Flats refinery. He used Clevelander Jeptha Wade's Western Union to pounce on opportunities. He wangled secret deals for railroad shipments.

One Sunday, rivals tried to save their moored barrels from a flood. Rockefeller prayed at church instead. Only his barrels survived.

He hired substitutes for the Union Army. In 1864, he married Central classmate Laura Spelman. They bought a mansion on Euclid Avenue, lost a baby, but raised four children to adulthood.

In 1870, Rockefeller's firm incorporated as Standard Oil. He owned about 29 percent. Soon he organized refiners and railroaders to control prices in Pennsylvania. Mobs foiled him, wrecking tracks and siphoning oil.

Undaunted, he waged the so-called Cleveland Massacre, buying about two dozen rivals here and many more around the country. Like Caesar, he made foes into allies, giving them Standard stock and high offices.

"I believe in the spirit of combination and cooperation," he wrote.

His monopoly grew vertically, drilling oil and making its own supplies. It grew horizontally, making tar, candles, Vaseline and wax for a local novelty, chewing gum.

On the side, he raised the Rockefeller Building downtown and helped develop Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland. Some of his country estate would become Forest Hill Park.

In the early 1880s, Rockefeller and Standard moved their legal homes to Manhattan. Taking a Baptist study's advice, he funded the University of Chicago. He later launched the Rockefeller Foundation, a sort of philanthropic conglomerate backing other charities.

Meanwhile, he was hounded by speculators, beggars, muckrakers, lawmakers and lawyers. Skipping some mitigating details, a tearful Cleveland widow testified that he'd seized her family's refinery for 40 percent of its value.

He testified cheerfully, vaguely, and, at least once, falsely, denying an ally's ownership of Standard stock. In 1879, Pennsylvania indicted him and associates but dropped the charges for idle promises.

In 1890, the Senate passed Ohioan John Sherman's antitrust act. Standard dodged it awhile by replacing the trust with a holding company.

The 5-foot-11 Rockefeller stayed slim and fit, swimming, skating, racing carriages, bicycling, golfing and eating bland food. But he lost all his hair, even his eyebrows.

At 58, he essentially retired but remained the conglomerate's official president and top shareholder. On the side, he invested in Minnesota's iron and helped create U.S. Steel.

In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court finally split Standard into 34 companies. Standard of Ohio eventually died, but Exxon and Mobil re-merged. In 1913, guards for his Colorado Fuel and Iron killed strikers and burned their families to death.

The next year, John and sickly Laura overstayed Tax Day at Forest Hill. Commissioners pounced. A new governor fired them. In widowhood, Rockefeller told a biographer, "Cleveland ought to be ashamed to look herself in the face when she thinks of how she treated us."

A hundred years ago this December, a mysterious fire razed the Forest Hill house. Rockefeller never revisited Cleveland alive. He stayed instead at homes in Manhattan, rural New York, New Jersey and Florida.

On May 22, 1937, Rockefeller paid off the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church's new home on East 18th Street despite rightly predicting the worshippers' flight to suburban sanctuaries. He died the next day. He was buried at Lake View Cemetery, beside a 66-foot obelisk. Now visitors leave coins there to thank and supplicate him.

Rockefeller's biographers say he cheated less and helped more than most tycoons. In 1998's acclaimed Titan, Ron Chernow wrote, "So much good had unexpectedly flowered from so much evil that God might even have greeted him on the other side."

Grant Segall, a Plain Dealer reporter and columnist, wrote "John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil" (2000, Oxford University Press).

Source : http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2017/11/john_d_rockefeller_remade_clev.html

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