The Early Lives and Times of 7 Oil Barons

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Want to become fabulously wealthy overnight and open the door to starting your own eccentric dynasty? We suggest striking oil.

1. John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller was so rich, he spent the last 40 years of his life in retirement. But the beginning of his life wasn’t as glamorous. His dad was a vagabond snake oil salesman, a self described “botanic physician,” who once said, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ‘em sharp.” And his boy was. Before he struck oil, young John made money by raising turkeys and selling potatoes. By 1870, his company was refining 90 percent the country’s oil.

2. H.L. Hunt

Although Hunt worked on a cotton plantation, he was known as a math whiz. One day in the early 20th century, with only $100 to his name, he booked it to New Orleans and bet it all on a poker game. Thanks to his mathematical chops and some good luck, Hunt turned that $100 into $100,000. He used his winnings to buy the East Texas Oil Field, which went on to earn him millions.

3. J. Paul Getty

Getty was lucky enough to grow up in an oil family. He made his first million two years after graduating college in 1914. After that, he decided to retire and become a Los Angeles playboy. He eventually got tired of the high life and returned to the oil biz, making millions more. But that didn’t stop him from being a penny-pincher: Getty made guests at his home use a payphone.

4. Edwin L. Drake

In 1858, the Seneca Oil Company sent Edwin Drake to Titusville, PA. It wasn’t because he was a revered oil baron. Instead he drew the assignment because, as a retired train conductor, Drake could travel on the railroad for free. And so Drake looked for oil the way everybody else did—by digging trenches. But then he had a wild idea. He tried drilling for oil instead. It was a first. People called him crazy, and Seneca Oil backed out. But then he struck black gold, initially collecting it all in a bathtub.

5. Anthony Francis Lucas

Born into a Croatian family of shipbuilders in 1855, Lucas became a mechanical engineer, moved to the US, and switched careers to become a gold prospector. Later on, he worked as a salt explorer for a New Orleans company. Later working in Texas, as he became more acquainted with the landscape, he guessed there was oil underfoot. Geologists called him nuts. Everyone stopped laughing when he hit a gusher that spewed oil for nine days.

6. Columbus Marion Joiner

Who needs education? Joiner went to school for a total of seven weeks! He taught himself how to read using the Bible and learned to write by copying Genesis. In the 1920s, he started drilling for oil in Texas with dilapidated, rusty equipment. After three years of pulling up nothing but dirt, Joiner hit a gusher. At that time, it was the largest oil field in the world.

7. George Bissell

When Bissell entered the business in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, most people collected oil by soaking blankets in surface deposits and then squeezing it into barrels. Bissell was a bit smarter than that. Actually, he spoke eight languages—including Sanskrit. But when he suggested people could pump oil out of the ground, one critic said, “Oil coming out of the ground, pumping oil out of the earth as you pump water? Nonsense! You’re crazy.”

As amazing as these oilmen are, none of them can touch the story of tycoon Jonas Morehouse and his sprawling family. Catch their story on The Spoils of Babylon on IFC at 10/9c on January 9.

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January 9, 2014 - 7:00am
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