Who Was That Roughneck?

Winthrop Rockefeller in the Texas and Louisiana Oil Fields

Winthrop Rockefeller was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller and the fifth of six children of John D. Rockefeller Jr. The eldest Rockefeller organized and incorporated the Standard Oil Company in 1870. By the early 1880s, Standard Oil had a near-monopoly of the U.S. petroleum industry. At his retirement, Rockefeller was said to be worth $1.5 billion – the richest man in the world. He was also considered the world’s greatest philanthropist, giving more than $500 million to educational, scientific and religious institutions. His son worked for Standard Oil from 1897-1910 before pursuing other business and philanthropic interests.

Determined to learn the family’s oil business “from the ground up,” Winthrop worked at Standard Oil of New Jersey’s Bayonne, N.J. refinery for a few weeks in June and July of 1933. In late July, Winthrop visited some Humble Oil and Refining Company Texas oil fields, including a tour of the giant East Texas oil field, discovered in 1930. Humble, founded in 1911, became an affiliate of Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1919. Winthrop began working at Humble’s Baytown, Texas oil refinery, but his stay in Texas was cut short after rumored kidnapping threats caused him to return to New York in August 1933. In February 1934, during his third year at Yale University, he left school, returning to Texas to work for Humble as a roughneck and roustabout.

Raccoon Bend

The Raccoon Bend oil field is located approximately 60 miles northwest of Houston. Harry Pennington, an independent oil operator from San Antonio, believed the area had the signs of an underlying oil field. In 1925 and early ‘26, he put together a large lease block. Realizing he needed a financial partner to cover his estimated $7.5 million of required capital, he approached H. T. (Henry) Staiti, the president of Valley Oil Corporation. Staiti had brought in wells at Humble, Damon Mound, West Columbia, Pierce Junction and other Texas Gulf Coast oilfields. Staiti agreed to help fund the project for an interest in the wells and Pennington assigned the leases to Valley Oil. Staiti contacted Humble Oil and Refining Company, which sent geologist Frith Owen to evaluate the property. Owen liked what he saw and recommended that Humble Oil join the partnership. Humble purchased a half interest in the leases on June 7, 1926 and the company acquired full control of the field on May 21, 1927.

Wallace Pratt was involved with the Raccoon Bend initial negotiations between Humble Oil and Valley Oil. In 1918, Humble hired Pratt as the company’s first geologist. Pratt was a pioneer petroleum geologist who would become a vice-president of Humble Oil and Refining Company and later, a vice-president of Standard Oil. He was also one of the founding members and the fourth president of AAPG.

Pratt would be involved with the logistics of Winthrop’s later training in Humble’s oilfields. The field’s first gas well was completed in 1926, pre-Humble’s acquisition. The Humble Oil and Refining Company’s No. 2 Gutowski well was completed as a 500 barrel-per-day discovery well in February 1928 from a sand at a depth of 3,282 feet.

Image Caption

Winthrop Rockefeller (right) and two Humble Oil colleagues at an unknown Texas oil field, circa 1935. Photo courtesy of the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

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Winthrop Rockefeller was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller and the fifth of six children of John D. Rockefeller Jr. The eldest Rockefeller organized and incorporated the Standard Oil Company in 1870. By the early 1880s, Standard Oil had a near-monopoly of the U.S. petroleum industry. At his retirement, Rockefeller was said to be worth $1.5 billion – the richest man in the world. He was also considered the world’s greatest philanthropist, giving more than $500 million to educational, scientific and religious institutions. His son worked for Standard Oil from 1897-1910 before pursuing other business and philanthropic interests.

Determined to learn the family’s oil business “from the ground up,” Winthrop worked at Standard Oil of New Jersey’s Bayonne, N.J. refinery for a few weeks in June and July of 1933. In late July, Winthrop visited some Humble Oil and Refining Company Texas oil fields, including a tour of the giant East Texas oil field, discovered in 1930. Humble, founded in 1911, became an affiliate of Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1919. Winthrop began working at Humble’s Baytown, Texas oil refinery, but his stay in Texas was cut short after rumored kidnapping threats caused him to return to New York in August 1933. In February 1934, during his third year at Yale University, he left school, returning to Texas to work for Humble as a roughneck and roustabout.

Raccoon Bend

The Raccoon Bend oil field is located approximately 60 miles northwest of Houston. Harry Pennington, an independent oil operator from San Antonio, believed the area had the signs of an underlying oil field. In 1925 and early ‘26, he put together a large lease block. Realizing he needed a financial partner to cover his estimated $7.5 million of required capital, he approached H. T. (Henry) Staiti, the president of Valley Oil Corporation. Staiti had brought in wells at Humble, Damon Mound, West Columbia, Pierce Junction and other Texas Gulf Coast oilfields. Staiti agreed to help fund the project for an interest in the wells and Pennington assigned the leases to Valley Oil. Staiti contacted Humble Oil and Refining Company, which sent geologist Frith Owen to evaluate the property. Owen liked what he saw and recommended that Humble Oil join the partnership. Humble purchased a half interest in the leases on June 7, 1926 and the company acquired full control of the field on May 21, 1927.

Wallace Pratt was involved with the Raccoon Bend initial negotiations between Humble Oil and Valley Oil. In 1918, Humble hired Pratt as the company’s first geologist. Pratt was a pioneer petroleum geologist who would become a vice-president of Humble Oil and Refining Company and later, a vice-president of Standard Oil. He was also one of the founding members and the fourth president of AAPG.

Pratt would be involved with the logistics of Winthrop’s later training in Humble’s oilfields. The field’s first gas well was completed in 1926, pre-Humble’s acquisition. The Humble Oil and Refining Company’s No. 2 Gutowski well was completed as a 500 barrel-per-day discovery well in February 1928 from a sand at a depth of 3,282 feet.

Raccoon Bend was one of the Humble Oil Company oil fields where Winthrop worked. The field’s camp included a 50-man dormitory and family cottages, but Winthrop roomed eight miles southwest in the small town of Bellville at the home of Mrs. Mildred Duncan. A March 15, 1934 letter from Winthrop to his parents included, “I will mark Houston, Eagle Lake where we first stayed and commuted to Bellville every day and finally Bellville where we are now located.” After a short time working at Raccoon Bend, Winthrop moved on to the Tomball oil field, 50 miles east of Raccoon Bend.

Tomball Field

By early 1933, Humble Oil and Refining Company had accumulated several thousand acres of leases near Tomball, Texas, approximately 35 miles northwest of Houston. Reflection seismic crews had located a large structure in the area the previous year. Humble also acquired a half-interest in a 10,000-acre block with Magnolia Petroleum Company. On May 22, 1933, the Humble and Magnolia No. 1 J.F.W. Kobs was completed as the discovery well for the Tomball oil field. The well tested at 1,656 barrels of oil per day from an Eocene Cockfield sand at a depth of 5,569 feet. Development of the oil field was rapid.

He arrived at Humble Oil’s Tomball oil field camp on April 14, 1934, less than a year after the field’s discovery. Winthrop roomed in one of the camp’s cottages with a Humble geologist and ate his 35-cent meals at the company’s boarding house/commissary, nicknamed “Miz Arnold’s.” The April 22, 1934 edition of the Galveston (Texas) Times, newspaper reported that, “He has not as yet been assigned to any regular duty. It was understood that he would take his turn at manual labor with the other youths in the field.”

“At Home in the Ditch”

Winthrop and his traveling/working companion William Alton worked for three months from late 1934 to early ‘35 in Louisiana’s Roanoke oil field, 30 miles east of Lake Charles. Alton and Winthrop apparently were old friends and both served as ushers in Winthrop’s older brother Nelson’s 1930 wedding. Nelson Rockefeller served as the governor of New York from 1959-73 and the vice-president of the United States from 1974-77. Alton would later work for Standard Oil in Egypt and Germany.

The Roanoke structure was identified by Vacuum Oil Company torsion balance and reflection seismograph surveys in 1928, though it was May 1934 when the field’s oil discovery well, the Shell No. 1 J. Kratzer, was completed. Humble Oil had previously drilled two dry holes and a gasser. Humble completed its first oil discovery at Roanoke, the No. B-1 J.W. Devilbriss (720 barrels per day), in late 1934.

A Feb. 15, 1935 letter from Humble Oil’s D.B. Harris to Winthrop, in care of Mrs. M.B. Duncan of Bellville, stated that Mr. Pratt had decided that Mr. Alton and Winthrop were being transferred to Raccoon Bend, apparently for a second time. Harris was the Humble Oil and Refining Company’s industrial relations manager and later served as the company’s treasurer and as a director.

An excerpt from a March 16, 1935 letter from Harris to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. reads, “It must be said that Winthrop holds the affection and respect of all those with whom he comes in contact. He is just as much at home in the ditch, on the derrick floor or in the field, as he is in the offices and homes of the executives, and he makes friends with all in both groups with equal facility. The men with whom he has labored in the oil fields are his staunchest and most loyal friends. They call him ‘Rock’ and ‘Rocky’ and they are for him 100 percent.”

Newspaper articles reported Winthrop’s height from 6 feet to 6 feet, 6 inches, but in any case, he is generally the tallest man in group photographs. Several sources state that Winthrop earned 75 cents an hour and rented a room for $4.50 a week, though not attributed to a specific oil field or town.

It is unclear which Humble Oil Company oil fields Winthrop worked in during much of 1935 and ‘36. In late October 1935, Winthrop and friend Alton visited Bellville again, where they had “numerous friends,” as reported by the local newspaper. In a January 1937 newspaper interview, Winthrop also reminisced about “wildcatting around Victoria” (Texas) and working in the Luling oil field. Luling, Texas is 140 miles west of Houston. The United North and South Oil Company discovered the Luling oil field in 1922 with the completion of their No. 1 Rafael Rios well. The well tested 60 barrels of oil per day from the Cretaceous Edwards limestone at a depth of 2,155 feet. Humble Oil began operations in the Luling oil field in 1925, and in nearby Salt Flat oil field in 1927 and Darst Creek oil field in 1928. In a 1923 AAPG Bulletin paper, Pratt stated that the discovery of the Luling field was “a direct result of geologic investigation”; the mapping of a surface expression of an up-to-the-coast, northeast-southwest trending fault.

Life After the Oil Fields

Winthrop returned to New York in 1937. A Feb. 4 letter from Wallace Pratt to Winthrop’s father includes, “It has been a pleasant experience to know Winthrop and a privilege to help him study the oil industry. His sojourn with us has been a source of gratification to us and we are happy to believe that it has been helpful to him.”

For the next two years, Winthrop worked in banking and with charitable organizations. In 1939 Rockefeller was employed in the foreign relations department of Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, an earlier merger of Standard Oil of New York and Vacuum Oil Company.

Rockefeller enlisted in the United States Army in January of 1941. Winthrop served with distinction during World War II and worked for Socony-Vacuum Oil Company again after the war. He would later serve as the governor of Arkansas from 1967-71.

Rockefeller would often comment that his years in the oilfields were some of his happiest. In 1964, the musical album, “Alex Zanetis Writes and Sings the Story of the Oil Fields,” was released, with songs such as “High and Dry,” “Three Miles Down,” and “Doodle-Bug Pete.” On the reverse of the album cover, there is a long recommendation by Winthrop, including “This album of oil field songs brings back heart-warming memories to me of the 1930s when I worked several years as a roughneck and roustabout in Texas for Humble Oil and Refining Co. The years there, and those following when I served seven years in the infantry, live with me because I learned so much about the men who are part of the backbone of this nation. Certainly, the oil industry is one of the most vital industries in America and these songs should bring many hours of enjoyment to the millions of men and women associated with the industry.”