Franklin Rockefeller (1845-1917), American financier, was a cofounder of the Rockefeller family. An alcoholic gambler who long subsisted on loans from his wealthier brothers, he became a bitter enemy of his brother John after the latter called in loans on a business that Frank favored. He is best remembered today for his involvement with the Buckeye Steel Castings company in Columbus, where his successor as President was Samuel P. Bush, the progenitor of the Bush political family.
The younger brother of John D. and William Rockefeller, he was born in Richford, New York. He had a twin sister, Frances, who died as an infant. In 1853 his family moved to Strongsville, Ohio, and he would grow up mainly in Parma.
Frank would have a complicated relationship with his successful older brother his entire life.
During the American Civil War, Frank enlisted despite being underage, and as a private in the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville and Battle of Cedar Mountain.
Emulating his brothers, Frank went to business school and became a bookkeeper, but unlike them did not succeed, and would spend much of his life in debt to John and other family and friends. He also gained a reputation as a gambler, and eventually, like his father, an alcoholic.
In 1870 he married Helen E. Scofield, daughter of William Scofield, a partner of Alexander, Scofield & Co., which was a competitor of John's in the oil refinery business -- and a company absorbed by Standard Oil in the expansive 1872 "Cleveland Massacre". In 1876, John's South Improvement Company was under investigation by the United States Congress, and Frank willingly testified in open hearings about his brother's suspect business practices, including threats and coercion directed at competitors.
After the Scofield buyout, Frank invested in a Lake Erie shipping concern, but given a plum Standard Oil delivery contract, was unable to manage the needed logistics. The brothers fought, and calling Frank's bluff, John bought him out the next day. It didn't help that Scofield and his partners violated a non-compete agreement from the 1872 purchase. Again trying to settle disagreements with money, John had Standard invest in Scofield -- which led, when Scofield violated a secret agreement to limit production, to an 1880 collusion lawsuit that Standard Oil lost.
Frank also participated in Pioneer Oil Works, another refinery started by Scofield. More attempts by John to neutralize this threat resulted in more antipathy, as Frank helped Scofield recruit plaintiffs in another collusion lawsuit.
Frank bought a luxurious country estate near Wickliffe, Ohio, where he staged Civil War battle reenactments. He also purchased an 8000-acre cattle ranch near Belvidere Kansas, but was ruined when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad cut off his herd's foraging range.
Eventually even Pioneer failed, and Frank tried work as a stockbroker, but soon accepted a vice presidency in Standard Oil, where he became an enthusiastic enforcer using the tactics he had previously fought as a competitor. Nevertheless, he and John continued their appositional stances and he engaged in an internal corporate feud with Col. Thompson, the operating manager, which resulted in Thompson relocating to New York City along with most corporate functions. Nominally in charge of Cleveland operations, Frank was shunted aside even there by Feargus Squire, technically his junior.
In 1892, Frank became aware of a failing ironworks in Columbus called Buckeye Malleable Iron and Coupler, later Buckeye Automatic Coupler. Its president, William Goodspeed, had designed a more efficient coupler mechanism for railroads, but needed capital to expand. In exchange for a substantial ownership interest, Rockefeller and Thomas Goodwillie, a Standard Oil executive, agreed to promote Buckeye's couplers with the railroads that did business with Standard. Later, a federal safety mandate for automatic couplers helped sales even more. Frank invested heavily in the business, as did many of his friends and relatives, and the company succeeded.
At the turn of the century, the company hired S.P. Bush as general manager. Bush had been supervisor of locomotive power for a division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was a graduate of the Stevens Institute of Technology and a proponent of modern management techniques. He immediately instituted financial processes that accounted for indirect costs, then a new concept, and the company began to prosper under his tutelage, building a new steel foundry and changing its name to Buckeye Steel Castings. Frank became President of the company in 1905, but by 1908 saw the wisdom of putting the entire enterprise in Bush's hands, and retired. Bush would go on to become a nationally known industrialist with Washington connections, and his connections to the Rockefeller family would help his career and give his sons a head start.
Feud with John
Frank and a friend, James Corrigan, were able to persuade John and William to lend them considerable money for an investment in the Mesabi Iron Range of Minnesota, which was quite successful at first. But in the Panic of 1893, their mining concern became bankrupt, and the older brothers became concerned about the outstanding loans. By 1895, with Frank and Corrigan's other business assets held as collateral, John called in the loans, buying out Corrigan. But Corrigan felt he had been swindled, and later sued John D. This episode marked a turning point for Frank, who both secretly ran down his brother, and continued to seek him out for money -- with John, due to the lawsuit, keeping a secretary in the room to witness their discussion. His new attitude toward his brother was dubbed "deranged" and "obsessed", and freely spoke disparagingly of John to reporters eager to print his quotes. He disinterred his children from the family plot, saying "No one of my blood will ever rest upon land controlled by that monster, John D. Rockefeller", and quit the family church. Despite this, John twice rescued Frank from personal bankruptcy, allowed him to retain a generous director's salary at Standard Oil, and dispatched him to corporate boards.
Around 1898, a curious incident during another Standard Oil scandal involved the accuser, Frank Monnett, charging that he had been offered a $400,000 bribe by Frank Rockefeller to drop his lawsuit. Nothing came of the accusation.
In 1904, the journalist Ida Tarbell became known for a series of critical articles on Standard Oil and Rockefeller, and Frank met with her secretly, requiring that she wear a disguise. Tarbell was shocked by Frank's bile against his brother, and disbelieved his side of the Corrigan story, but used some of the material she was fed in her articles. Frank also alerted her to the break between John D. and his father William, and that the latter was still alive -- which became a national news sensation. Teams of reporters were dispatched to locate Doc Rockefeller. Frank struck a deal with the New York World, though, to call off their search if they would publish a screed of his against his brother. When he failed to provide the promised manuscript, however, they ran details of an interview previously considered on background.
Later life and death
William Rockefeller's last connection to his family was through Frank, including visits to the Kansas ranch. William broke his arm in a fall there, which led to a fatal infection; Frank was the only one of his children to attend the 1906 funeral.
Even on his deathbed, Frank denounced his brother, and his greatest worry in his last days was that John would visit. He was buried, per his earlier wishes, apart from the family plot in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery ; but his widow and daughters quickly reconciled with John, who had previously considered trust funds for their support, and now cancelled all of Frank's outstanding debts.
- Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, by Ron Chernow.
- John D. Rockefeller: A Portrait in Oils, by John K. Winkler. Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
- John D. Rockefeller: Anointed with Oil, by Grant Segall. Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.
- Buckeye Steel Castings - Scripophily
- Small Business in America: Two Case Studies, by Mancel G. Blackford, Ohio State University (PDF)