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Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum

Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum

by Michael Wallis

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This rich, rousing gusher of a biography captures the life and times of an American hero and the birth of the modern oil empire he created.

Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum, was one of the most prominent self-made business tycoons of the twentieth century. In Oil Man, Michael Wallis, a best-selling historian of the West, presents Phillips


This rich, rousing gusher of a biography captures the life and times of an American hero and the birth of the modern oil empire he created.

Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum, was one of the most prominent self-made business tycoons of the twentieth century. In Oil Man, Michael Wallis, a best-selling historian of the West, presents Phillips against a pageant of luminaries and outlaws that includes Will Rogers, Harry Truman, Edna Ferber, J. Paul Getty, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Spanning the final days of America's frontier West through the Roaring Twenties and two world wars, Oil Man is a bold, colorful biography of an original American entrepreneur. A classic work that continues to gather accolades since its original publication in 1988, the book captures the life and times of an American hero.

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From the Publisher
"A masterful account of the man and the shaping of Oklahoma's largest corporation. The book is superior." --The Daily Oklahoman

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St. Martin's Press
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6.14(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.31(d)

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The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum

By Michael Wallis


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4696-6


Dawn slipped up quiet as a mercy killer. As first light broke over the land, Lewis Phillips saw in an instant that his world was gone. The crops and grass were chewed to the ground. Only broken roots and stubble remained. The cottonwood trees along the Loup River were bare as if somehow it had jumped from summer to the dead of winter.

The devastation and destruction he found that scorching July morning in 1874 moved Phillips to genuine tears of pain, something he hadn't felt since serving as a young artillery gunner in the Civil War.

Phillips kicked a mound of dusty earth and watched it blow away. North of his homestead, several forlorn cattle and a lean buckskin horse stood at the river's edge. They snorted, turned from the river and left thirsty. The fouled water was the color of varnish—stained from the excrement of the pestilence that descended on the land before returning to a roost in hell.

Grasshoppers. Billions of grasshoppers had darkened the sky. They arrived the day before—a clear, hot afternoon and suddenly a haze came over the sun and deepened into a gray cloud as the grasshoppers swept down upon the earth with a roaring sound like a rushing prairie storm. As far as the eye could see in every direction, the air was filled with them. The worst grasshopper plague in history, the swarm of insects reached from Texas to the Canadian border. They came in great clouds, almost a mile high, 100 miles wide and 300 miles long.

They crossed the Nebraska border near Scottsbluff and winged eastward. At Kearney, thick carpets of grasshoppers buried the Union Pacific rails. The tracks became so greasy from the mashed insects that the locomotives' wheels spun and couldn't pull the trains. It was difficult to drive a team across a field because the carpet of grasshoppers flew up in the faces of the horses and made them wild. Chickens and dogs, hunting for food, learned to eat the insects. Grasshoppers blanketed the hog lots, where Duroc and Hampshire sows gorged themselves. For a long time hams in this part of the country would have a peculiar taste.

Hot tears streaked down Phillips' cheeks. The crop of corn had been well along and the garden filled with vegetables for the winter. But now it was all gone. Every leaf, every stalk, was chewed up. There was nothing but bare earth. Even turnips and potatoes underground were eaten. The spade handle was gnawed where Phillips' palm grease had soaked the wood. Harnesses were cut in shreds.

Everywhere the earth was a gray mass of struggling, biting grasshoppers. Phillips slipped as he walked around his land, his boots slick with slime from their crushed bodies. He listened to the mechanical song of the dying hoppers as they laid their eggs.

Lewis Phillips would never forget the taste and smell of the grasshoppers. Most of all, he would never forget the feel of them moving over his body. He'd feel their spiny feet grasping his flesh as they crawled up his pant legs and down his shirt and over his neck and face. He'd feel them in his beard, inching toward his mouth and eyes and nostrils. He'd feel them fly into his chest and legs as he moved from the barn to the log cabin. Years from now, safe in a rocking chair on a cool porch in Iowa, he'd still be feeling the grasshoppers chewing up his life.

Inside his cabin, Phillips' wife, Lucinda, sat rocking her baby boy in his cradle. Her hands and arms were covered with stinging bites. The day before, as the cloud of grasshoppers approached their farm, Lucinda rushed to the garden and covered the plants with her aprons. She watched helplessly as the grasshoppers methodically chewed through the cloth and then ate the cabbages underneath.

Today seemed a bit better. At least some of the noise had stopped. More warm winds came with the sun and caressed the scarred homestead. Lucinda soothed her two daughters, who were still frightened from the day before when the resonant drumming of wings beat outside the door. The family had sat huddled in the cabin staring at each other as the grasshoppers came in endless waves. The insects rode the chinooks—the warm, dry winds that sweep down from the Rockies and fan the Great Plains. It seemed an endless siege. For a time, the Phillipses believed the grasshoppers would never stop coming.

"They've eaten all our crops and chewed the grass right down to the roots," Phillips told his wife, "but I think they'll soon be gone. There's nothing left for them."

Only two years before, Phillips had brought his wife and two daughters, Etta and Mary Jennie, from Iowa. They were homesteaders, part of the thousands spreading out across the prairies encouraged by the Homestead Act to settle western lands. Little encouragement was needed. Most of them, like Lewis Phillips, were young veterans mustered out of the Union Army, full of ginger and itching for adventure. They had a taste to leave Ohio or Illinois or Iowa and try new lands in the West.

Phillips picked Nebraska. In 1872 he and Lucinda, his wife of five years, put their little girls and the family's few belongings in a canvas-topped wagon hitched to a team of oxen and said goodbye to friends and family in Iowa.

They followed a nameless trail into Nebraska and the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains. The land had once been covered with buffalo—millions of shaggy-coated bison in herds so large that when they stampeded, the earth thundered and the horizon was black with lumbering bodies. Hide-hungry hunters and civilization were taking their toll. Buffalo herds still roamed the grasslands, but within a dozen more years they'd be gone.

Already the land knew change was at hand as hundreds of homesteaders followed their hearts, joining the dusty column of prairie schooners pushing westward. When the plows and spades broke the tough virgin sod, the soil yielded a sort of sigh, as if it knew the old days were gone forever.

The land Phillips homesteaded was pure frontier, in the North Loup River valley near the geographic center of Nebraska. Sioux Indians roamed the countryside, often raiding farms or stealing cattle. Sometimes they took scalps. Wolves and coyotes hunted in the valley; rattlesnakes bathed in the strong prairie sun.

Shortly after the Phillips family arrived, they were joined by more homesteaders—war veterans, miners, and laborers from back East, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Denmark. Sod houses and cabins began to dot the landscape.

Phillips stayed busy clearing his land and building a sturdy log home of cottonwood cut from a river island and fragrant red cedar carefully hewed and hauled from nearby canyons. Money was scarce, so in addition to his crops, Phillips earned a living cutting scrub cedar posts. Lucinda (or Josie, as she was known) picked wild onions to season rabbit stews and roasted prairie chicken suppers. She learned that the roots of the yucca growing on the sandy hills, when rubbed in water, made a soapy lather, and she cut handfuls of Queen Anne's lace, wild asters and sunflowers to brighten the tidy cabin. Her bone-white muslin curtains in the windows were the envy of every white woman around.

Phillips was a popular man on the frontier, especially among his fellow Civil War veterans. He was proud of his fancy certificate signed by the governor making him a second lieutenant in the Greeley County Guards. On hunting trips for large game or during the eighty-mile trek from the canyons of red cedar to Grand Island, no man was better liked or trusted than Lew Phillips. A family history records that "his genial personality and generous brave spirit made him a favorite companion of the scouts and plainsmen found in the vanguard of civilization."

In 1872, Phillips helped organize Greeley County, Nebraska, and the town of Scotia was selected as the county seat. Lew was appointed tax assessor, and when the first general election was held in November 1873, he was elected county judge. He helped build the one-room school which also served as the county courthouse. The judicial duties were minimal. In the year or so he served, Phillips issued only one marriage license. Marriageable couples in those parts were rare as college professors.

Pioneer life was not easy. Constant fear of hostile Indians, long trips to frontier towns and plain old loneliness took a toll. Needlework and reading the Bible and three-week-old newspapers from Des Moines helped a little, and when Lew's aunt and uncle and some cousins moved to the Loup valley, there were more friendly faces to see. Their houses were five miles apart, and with telescopes they could keep watch over each other and detect any snooping Indians. That brought some comfort. But on harsh winter nights, with the door heavily barred and icy winds howling down the chimney, time passed very slowly.

Blizzards, prairie fires, drought, hailstorms, and rattlers could be endured. No Indians raided the Phillips cabin or stock pens and the farm escaped harm's way until now, when what would be known as the Grasshopper Scourge of '74 struck. It was the last calamity he cared to face. Lew Phillips knew, as sure as the grasshopper eggs would hatch, it was time to go home to Iowa.

Looking for more comfort, Phillips reached for the Bible, opened it to Exodus, and read the story of the locust plague. "They covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees." It was just like ancient Egypt, he thought. Phillips went to Ecclesiastes and found another passage he remembered: "The grasshopper shall be a burden." He read the verse aloud and then he turned to the front of the Bible and, as if for reassurance, read the family names recorded there.

Phillips ran his finger down the entries until he came to the name that had been entered less than a year before. A smile came back to his troubled face when he read: "Scotia, Nebraska. November 28, 1873. Born to Lucinda and Lewis Phillips, a baby boy, their first son ..."

Phillips still knew every detail of that November evening. He recalled scrawling the entry by lamplight and fanning the ink dry. He remembered closing his eyes and his silent prayer of thanks before turning to the doctor to proclaim, "My first son."

The doctor, bone-weary and mindful of the ride before him, shook Phillips' hand, closed his black bag, and buckled on his pistol belt. He rode off in the early-morning darkness and went straight to the hitching post in front of Scotia's general store to share the good news with the sturdy pioneers who gathered there. Soon the word spread up and down the Loup River valley. "There's a new baby boy at the Phillips place. They've named him Frank."


Frank Phillips came from good stock. Both sides of his family provided a classic American lineage including a Mayflower celebrity; French Huguenot and Welsh immigrants; New England colonists; veterans of the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War; sturdy midwestern pioneers; and a long line of teachers, soldiers, clergy, merchants, blacksmiths, and farmers.

Frank, instilled by his parents with a keen sense of history and family pride, was ever mindful that he was a direct descendant of Captain Miles Standish, the most adventuresome of the Pilgrim fathers. Like other children, he learned the tales of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, and he pictured the noble Standish as presented by Longfellow. What Frank didn't know was the story of the expedient Captain Standish who invited a party of hostile Indian chiefs to a conference, promptly killed them, and then defeated their confused warriors in a brief skirmish. Nor did Frank learn that Standish was excitable and passionate, known for promptness in making decisions, and unperturbed by sudden danger—all traits that would pass through nine generations to himself.

The Phillips and Standish families combined with the marriage of Frank's paternal grandparents—nineteen-year-old Marilla Standish, a New York State native and the daughter of Ester Curtis and Matthew Kettle Standish, and twenty-six-year-old Daniel Phillips, son of Spencer and Susanna Phillips, hardworking Welsh people and early settlers in colonial America.

In his early years, Daniel, remembered by his family as "a tireless worker" who "possessed unlimited energy," labored as a lumberman and raftsman along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He helped take great rafts of logs as far south as Natchez and, on occasion, New Orleans.

Marilla and Daniel married on June 2, 1839, in Potter County, Pennsylvania, and settled near the town of Pomeroy in Meigs County, Ohio. Here the first three of their eight children were born. Lew Phillips—born Lewis Franklin Phillips on January 4, 1844—was the third child and first son. According to family records, Lewis was "a promising child and a great favorite with his [maternal] grandfather Standish." In 1848 the Phillips family moved to Jackson County, Iowa, where Daniel took up farming, while Marilla turned a room in their home into a school to teach her children and others from neighboring farms. When Lewis was eleven, the family moved to a farm north of Des Moines, where the boy finished his schooling and learned the carpenter's trade.

Lewis was a seventeen-year-old apprentice carpenter when news of the Union defeat at the first battle of Bull Run sent him to Des Moines to enlist, on August 1, 1861, as a buck private in the 4th Iowa Infantry. Soon his company was transferred to the artillery, and became the 2nd Iowa Light Artillery. Phillips was assigned to Battery E and during the next three years rose to the rank of corporal.

Phillips fought throughout the war, mainly in the western theater under Major General A. J. Smith. The young soldier participated in the siege of Nashville and the Vicksburg campaign, and even managed a brief love affair with a local girl when his outfit wintered in La Grange, Tennessee. In a privately published memoir, Lewis Phillips recalled a hot July day in 1864 when he was slightly wounded while serving as a gunner at the battle of Tupelo, Mississippi: "In that blazing sun this was work for giants to do, but the 18- and 20-year-old boys from Iowa were giants in those days. As long as there was an enemy in sight our boy was as full of fight as a young bulldog. We hardly need tell you that every time this boy went into action it took the tightest grip he could get on his nerves to hold him up to the work, but after he had heard the swish of a few of their death-dealing missiles and fairly gotten the scent of battle, his feelings underwent an entire change and all he thought was to 'lick 'em.'"

Shades of Captain Standish.

Phillips was released from the Army on August 7, 1865, at Davenport, Iowa, and resumed his life as a farmer and carpenter.

Frank's mother was a Faucett, a family that could trace their roots back to William Faucett, a French Huguenot émigré who fled France as a youngster and grew to manhood in Ireland before settling in 1783 in North Carolina, where he married a local girl and raised a family. In 1815, William's son, James Faucett, born April 19, 1789, married Elizabeth Jeffers and proceeded to sire a dozen children. The eighth-born—arriving August 31, 1826—was Thomas Linch Faucett.

When Thomas was six, the family moved to Indiana and roosted near French Lick. His father maintained a 200-acre farm and operated a tavern with sleeping rooms for highway travelers passing on the stage route between Louisville and Vincennes.

Thomas was twenty and his boyhood sweetheart, Mary Jane Tate, sixteen when they married October 24, 1846. His young bride hailed from a family of Scottish descent who settled in North Carolina before the Revolutionary War and later moved to Indiana, where Mary was born September 27, 1830.

Thomas, with a strong back and a meager education, took up the blacksmith's trade, farmed, and even peddled grindstones for a time in order to support his wife and dozen children.

The family moved from Indiana to an 80-acre farm in Illinois and finally in 1864 to Iowa. Faucett obtained the contract for steel welding for the first railroad line to enter Des Moines and worked a 160-acre farm. A deeply religious man and an evangelist at heart, Faucett enjoyed working as a blacksmith six days a week and climbing to the pulpit on the Sabbath to deliver sermons and tell his faithful flock how "I hammer iron all week and hammer the Gospel into people's hearts on Sunday."

The Faucetts' second-oldest child, Lucinda Josephine, was born in Orange County, Indiana, on August 13, 1849. She followed her family to Illinois and Iowa, where she met Lewis Phillips shortly after he returned from his service in the Civil War.

He was dazzled by Miss Josie, who was known to be "the most beautiful girl in this section of Iowa." She was likewise impressed with Lew Phillips, who was a handsome war veteran. After a brief courtship, they married in Des Moines on July 3, 1867. Lew was twenty-three, Josie a month shy of her eighteenth birthday.


Excerpted from Oilman by Michael Wallis. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Wallis is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Route 66: The Mother Road and Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

John Gibson Phillips, Jr., is the grandson of Frank Phillips.

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