Born in 1857 and raised in oil country, Ida M. Tarbell was one of the first investigative journalists and probably the most influential in her time. Her series of articles on the Standard Oil Trust, a complicated business empire run by John D. Rockefeller, revealed to readers the underhanded, even illegal practices that had led to Rockefeller's success. Rejecting the term "muckraker" to describe her profession, she went on to achieve remarkable prominence for a woman of her generation as a writer and shaper of public opinion. This biography offers an engrossing portrait of a trailblazer in a man's world who left her mark on the American consciousness. Notes, bibliography, index.
About the Author
Emily Arnold McCully received the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire. The illustrator of more than 40 books for young readers, she has a lifelong interest in history and feminist issues. She divides her time between Chatham, New York, and New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Oil Region
Ida Minerva Tarbell, an eagerly awaited first child, was n November 5, 1857, in a log house on her maternal grandparents’ little dairy farm in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania. Ida’s father was far away in Iowa. Her mother’s dreams for the baby daughter were expressed in the names she chose: Ida, from a poem about a women’s college, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
Franklin and Esther Tarbell had married after a six-year courtship. Esther was liberally educated for a woman of the time, and both had taught school; as a man, Franklin earned four times what Esther did. He had also worked as a welder, a river pilot, and a carpenter. Now he had relocated again, leaving Esther, pregnant with their child, at her parents’ farm. He was making a homestead on Iowa’s fertile soil, so superior to western Pennsylvania’s.
Ida’s grandmother was a frontier snob, given to reminding Esther that she came from one of the best families and was a descendant of Sir Walter raleigh, of the first American Episcopal bishop, and of a member of General Washington’s staff. Esther would take up this theme with her own children, telling them never to forget who they were. Franklin was descended from hardy, self-reliant New Englanders who had fought wars and cleared land and were not famous or grand. Earlier generations had moved from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to New York, where Franklin was born, then to Pennsylvania.
Conditions in 1857 didn’t favor another new beginning. While Iowa’s white population had grown sixfold in a decade, Sioux warriors still attacked settlers in revenge for the loss of their lands. Iowa winters were much harsher than those most immigrants had ever known. Still, Franklin found a great deal to praise about his new surroundings and described the immensity of flat prairie, its birds and flowers, the sight of wagon trains bearing families farther west.
Franklin was an introspective, judgmental man of powerful religious convictions. The calm demeanor instilled by his Christian faith gave way to manic bursts of activity. He had a great taste for travel and adventure, a sense of fun, and a gift for storytelling that captivated his children. Tall and spare, he was vain enough to cover his early baldness with a wig. While he built their new house, he whistled “from morning ’til night, mischief and tenderness chasing each other across his blue eyes as he thought of [Esther’s] coming, their future together.”
The Tarbells had expected that their first child would be born an Iowan. But it was not to be. The country entered an economic depression in 1857. In Iowa, railroad lines and construction projects were left unfinished. The Tarbells’ bank collapsed, wiping out their savings. A disheartened Franklin realized he would have to abandon his unfinished house and go back to Hatch Hollow. Unable to pay for transportation, he began to walk the thousand miles through Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio in the fall of 1858. It took him eighteen months. To pay for food and shelter, he taught in rural schools as he went.
Meanwhile, her adoring grandmother was indulging little Ida Minerva, and no one was competing for her mother’s attention. Her first two and a half years of life were so happy, she remembered them later as a lost idyll. Ida spent her days scampering through pastures bright with wildflowers. Lambs, calves, kittens, and puppies were her playmates. She was developing a precocious passion for freedom and beauty.
She had never before laid eyes on the ragged man who appeared on the doorstep and embraced her mother. Ida cried, “Go away, bad man!”
Franklin still hoped to make good in Iowa. He took a job as a flatboat pilot to earn money so that his wife and daughter could move there with him. But the fall of 1859 was one of the great turning points in modern history. The Tarbells’ lives were set on an unexpected new course.
Petroleum, or oil, as we know it, is organic waste that has been pressure-cooked deep in the earth over millennia and turned into hydrocarbons: oil and natural gas. Seneca Indians traditionally skimmed the inky green substance from ponds and streams and rubbed it on their bodies to treat aches and pains. White settlers, including Franklin Tarbell, learned to use it too, soaking up surface oil with blankets, wringing them out, and applying the stinking ooze to their joints and machinery alike. Some even drank it to prevent colds. A 1755 map of western Pennsylvania labels the area Petroleum and identifies one of the waterways there as Oyl Creek. Oil floated regularly on the creek and was sold as a patent medicine called Seneca Oil. Seeping into the crevices in rock, and often sealed under a layer of salt water, oil was considered an undesirable byproduct released when salt was drilled.
In the 1850s, whale oil, then the principal fuel for lamps, was becoming scarce, as whales had been overhunted. Coal oil (kerosene distilled from petroleum) was a common substitute, but it was smoky and smelly, and the flame went out when a coal-oil lamp was carried from room to room. A chimney lamp invented in Europe made coal kerosene more practical, but coal oil clogged lamp parts and was unsafe to use in confined spaces.
After one of a group of investors visited western Pennsylvania in 1853 and reported the region’s promise, a sample of oil was sent to a chemist at Yale University, who determined that oil could be refined into lamp fuel. This made oil a potentially profitable resource. The investors decided to try adapting a derrick used to drill for underground salt to see if it could recover large quantities of oil from deep underground recesses.
Edwin Drake, an unemployed former railroad worker who had a train pass and therefore could travel for free, was recruited to go to Titusville. On behalf of his investors, he bought a hardscrabble farm in that timbered wasteland to try out the drill. Months of failure followed. The locals thought he was crazy. The derrick he put up was known as Drake’s Folly.
In August 1859, a blacksmith hired by Drake to operate the drill succeeded in striking oil. Washtubs, whiskey barrels, molasses crocks, anything that would catch flow from the oil fountain, or geyser, were hustled into service. The oil rush—in what was popularly called “Oildorado”—had begun. Just a decade after the gold rush, this new frenzy would outdo it by far, largely determining the course of America’s economic history for the succeeding century and a half.
Would-be oil prospectors left their farms, law offices, stores, and mills and poured into the region. Farms around Titusville that had recently been bought for $25,000 now sold for as much as $1,600,000. Many were sliced into little pieces and leased to oil hunters for whatever the traffic would bear. It is said that one cunning yokel, offered a 1/4 percent royalty payment for his plot, held out for 1/8 percent, thinking that was bigger. The whole region was up for grabs. Derricks, or drills, appeared wherever a piece of ground could be exploited. The first wells were dug with “spring poles,” simple devices driven into the earth by human and horse power. The oil had to be collected in vessels, then transported to a cobbled-together refinery to be heated to separate it into useful components, such as kerosene. roads were scraped out of the mud, shacks thrown up for men to sleep in. Oil was flowing so fast that prospectors couldn’t collect it all.
Related ways to make money quickly presented themselves. Housing, food, banking, legal services, and entertainment had to be provided for the prospectors. Swindlers found their own opportunities. Overrun by greedy interlopers with only one thing in mind—money!—locals felt that human nature itself had gone bad. A few, however, saw divine intervention at work. God had apparently chosen to bestow upon the citizens of northwestern Pennsylvania unheard-of riches.
Prospectors soon learned that instant wealth could be wiped out just as quickly as it appeared, when oversupply caused prices to plummet or when thieves took a hand. Once forced to the surface, oil was sometimes stolen. Wells were spied on, and if they were productive, their output was siphoned away underground by a derrick planted nearby. With no authority to rein them in, men drank, brawled, and whored. Upright citizens organized vigilantes to keep order.
Franklin Tarbell learned of Drake’s successful strike as word raced across the region. A natural entrepreneur, Franklin saw that there would be an urgent need for vessels to store and transport the gushing oil. He designed wooden tanks that would hold two hundred to six hundred barrels of oil and showed them to men on the rouse farm, site of an early strike. When rouse placed a large order, he set up shop, ordered lumber, and went to fetch his family. Despite the chaotic atmosphere in the region, Franklin believed he could manage a family life, even provide some comfort and respectability for his wife, and reap the rewards of the oil business at the same time. For the most part, he succeeded.
As the Tarbell wagon, loaded with the family’s possessions, rolled through oil country, new baby William in Esther’s arms, Ida watched with wide eyes. Oil was everywhere. Geysers spilled over. Barrels and wagons dribbled their contents. Stumps abounded where trees had been hacked down to build wells, shacks, and, eventually, hotels and sidewalks. Men carried planks so they could cross the muck dry shod.
The family pulled onto the flats next to a creek called Cherry run, where twenty-five oil wells per acre were already operating. Franklin built a shack and a workshop, and Ida found herself plumb in the middle of the oil rush. The modest Tarbell dwelling was surrounded by oily sand, oily pits, and puddles and dumps of oily gravel regurgitated by the drills. Every living thing was slathered black with oil and tar and smelled abominable. Nothing was ever cleaned up, not spilled crude, broken equipment, dead horses and mules, or human and animal waste. Wells that failed were simply abandoned. If a barrel sank, retrieving it was too much trouble. The few trees not felled for tanks or to house oil wells poked spectrally through a smog that reeked nauseatingly of gas and throbbed with the shrieks and squeals of engines and pile drivers and the curses of men. Teamsters’ wagons crowded the throughways, and their flatboats clogged the waters of Oil Creek. None of the muck ever dried up or froze. When wagons sank into the mud above their axles, they were left there, as were the pitiable horses, their coats rubbed to bare skin. Everything was expendable in pursuit of the fortunes to be made.
Ida desperately missed the farm, her grandmother’s love, and her mother’s undivided attention. The world she’d been dropped into offended her tender sensibilities deeply. Her parents had robbed her of joy, with no explanation. The shock marked her forever. Late in life she wrote, “No industry of man in its early days has ever been more destructive of beauty, order, decency, than the production of petroleum.”
Even worse, she was stripped of her independence. For a child who had freely wandered over the endlessly interesting barnyard and meadows of a small family farm, the restrictions were onerous. Ida was warned never to climb the enticing derrick, rising like a giant magic ladder, in the front yard. Will did climb it once, his baby skirts flying in the breeze. A panicked Esther was told to keep still while a driller gently talked him down. Ida wasn’t ever to venture below their house, ringed by open pits of oil. She got a spanking when she disobeyed, which was often, because she was unquenchably curious.
Just after her third birthday, Ida announced to her mother that she was going back to her grandma and stomped out the door. Esther watched her go without comment. The little girl with dark brown hair and earnest gray eyes followed the route she had seen her father’s men take after work. A ridge ran along the horizon at the far side of the valley. She trudged toward it. It became harder and harder to lift her feet. The closer she got to the ridge, the higher it looked. Even worse, she realized she didn’t know the way to her grandmother’s after all.
The sun was going down. She looked behind her: the Tarbell shanty was barely visible in the distance, a light shining in a window. It drew her back.
Pausing outside the door, she had to admit defeat. She wasn’t free, couldn’t make her own way. Still, she had demonstrated headstrong bravery that had yielded to reality. The little prodigal received neither a lecture nor punishment, just a matter-of-fact welcome and a warmed-over supper. She wrote later that her respect for her mother was established that night. When Ida faced difficulties later on, she pictured her small self before the black mountain, looking longingly back to a lighted window. She would never again take on a challenge without fully preparing for it.
One other self-revealing episode stuck in Ida’s memories of that time. It was her first attempt to test a hypothesis by experiment. Her curiosity naturally led her toward science, and now she attempted to pursue its method.
Her father’s workshop sat next to a creek. Ida had been told never to play in it, but she loved to watch its noisy currents and store up observations. She tossed a pebble into the water. It sank. On the other hand, leaves floated. A question entered her three-year-old mind and would not budge: Was her brother, a baby still in dresses, a floater or a sinker? She couldn’t tell by looking. The more she pondered the question, the more urgently she needed to know the answer. She thought of a way to find out. She led the unsuspecting Will to the footbridge and dropped him into the creek.
The baby’s skirts billowed out and buoyed him. He howled. One of Franklin’s men dashed over and pulled him out of the water. At eighty, Ida still remembered the “peace of satisfied curiosity” she felt having discovered that her brother “belonged to the category of things that floated.” She couldn’t remember whether she’d been spanked after the episode. After all, Will hadn’t drowned.
How her life would have changed had Will drowned is another matter.