Humble Oil Company

What do you get by adding the grandnephew of Jefferson Davis, an uneducated farmhand, orphan, and Princeton graduate? The answer is today’s Humble Oil Company, Texas’ precursor to ExxonMobil.

Humble Beginnings

Humble Oil’s origins come from the 1901 Spindletop gusher that set off the Texas oil rush.

It became the largest domestic oil producer by the 1940s, a position retained through the 1960s.

The Humble reputation wasn’t extinguished until Exxon’s launch in 1972. “It’s a story of really capable and driven people finding this region as a way to play out their ambitions,” said Houston University oil historian and professor Joe Pratt. “I don’t think you can exaggerate how significant Humble was throughout 50 years of the global oil industry.”

The Spindletop discovery attracted several of the original nine founders and board members of Humble to the Houston area—many were not from Texas—and most of them made their way to the newly discovered Humble oil field just northeast of the city from 1905.

Ross S. Sterling, however, did not invest in Texas oil wells in Humble until 1909. He was busy opening a variety of small feed stores and banks in oil towns, according to the 1959 “History of Humble Oil & Refining Company” by Henrietta Larson and Kenneth Wiggins Porter.

Eary Establishment up to Continuous Success

The first Humble Oil Company was established in 1911 by Sterling, a mostly uneducated farmhand from Anahuac, although the Humble Oil & Refining Co. that came to dominate US production was not chartered until six years later on 21 June 1917.

The brash Sterling, who became the company’s president, would be elected governor of Texas in 1930.

Some of Sterling’s early Humble partners included his brother, Frank, Ohio driller Charles Goddard, and Tennessee orphan Walter Fondren, who became known as the best Gulf Coast driller after moving to Texas at the age of 17 “with nothing but a pair of overalls and 30 cents.”

The other founding Humble team was William Stamps Farish’s famous Blaffer & Farish partnership and Robert Lee Blaffer, a  New Orleans railroad worker first sent to Spindletop by his employer. Farish came from Mississippi with an education in law school and the pedigree of becoming the grandnephew of the Confederate States of America’s first and only President. F

arish would go on to serve as the president of Humble, New Jersey’s Standard Oil Company, another Exxon Mobil predecessor, and the American Petroleum Institute.

Blaffer and Farish first met near Beaumont in 1902, and in 1904 they formed a formal partnership. A year later they moved to Houston, concentrating on the emerging Humble oil field.

Harry C. Wiess, the youngest of the founders, was the bridge between the Sterling community and Blaffer & Farish. The Princeton-educated Wiess, a Beaumont native and one of the first oilmen of the second generation in Texas, took over the interests of his father in the Paraffine Oil Company, which merged in 1917 into Humble. Wiess joined up with Sterling to discover Oklahoma, partnering in the oil field of Goose Creek, now part of Baytown, with Blaffer & Farish. Far less interested were the other two original Humble directors – Lobel Carlton and Jesse H.

Jones, a prosperous lumberman, developer, and banker. For most of the creators, Carlton was a lawyer, while Jones was brought in to assist with funding.   Jones, who sold his Humble interests in 1918, would become the owner and publisher of the Houston Chronicle.

Most of the Humble founders proved successful in the oil fields, but the biggest oil companies in the state, such as the Texas Company (Texaco), Sun Oil (Sunoco), and Gulf Oil, initially dwarfed them.

The Texas Company pushed legislation beginning in 1915 to allow oil companies to be merged so that one company could manufacture, transport, and refine oil into fuel.

The Gulf Coast Oil Producers Association was founded by independent producers like Farish, Sterling, and Wiess to battle the legislation and to find better deals to sell their oil. Subsequently, separate refining and pipeline companies were established or bought by them.

Farish led the drive for them to pool all their resources into one business that could feed the rapidly rising demand for oil and gasoline in the country.

The consolidated Humble Oil & Refining Corporation was formed when a compromise version of the Texas Company’s bill became law in 1917.

The Baytown refinery was then designed by Humble – the extended version of which is the second-largest refinery in the nation today. Despite early achievements, the growth of Humble was still limited by the need to fund exploration with more resources. Due to the strict antitrust laws of the state, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil never made a big dent in Texas early on – not to mention Standard was considered a monopolistic Yankee empire. But in 1911, the courts split the Pattern into many sections.

Within the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey or Jersey Standard, the Standard name stayed best. While serving on the Petroleum Committee of the Council of National Defense during World War I, Farish became friends with Standard CEO Walter Teagle.

Farish and Teagle spoke about collaboration over lunch one day an idea that Farish reluctantly broached to Sterling. “I don’t give a continental damn if you get it from the czar of Russia or the emperor of Germany, just so we have the money, “I don’t give a continental fuck if you get it from the czar of Russia or the emperor of Germany, just so we have the money. In 1919, in a transaction that left Humble management with a remarkable degree of freedom for decades to come, they decided to sell 50 percent of Humble to Normal for $17 million. Sterling replied, “Take us over, hell! We’re going to take over the Standard.” when confronted with the suggestion that Standard was taking over Modest.  

In 1921, Humble opened its downtown headquarters in Houston. Six years later, the Sugarland oil field was found, the first major U.S. discovery using seismography.

In 1937 came the big Friendswood oil field discovery. In Texas and most of the nation, the Humble brand became ubiquitous, although, in some regions, Standard pushed its Esso or Enco products. The company consolidated all of its US operations into Humble in 1959 as Jersey Standard rose globally.

Exxon and Mobil

However, for years the business struggled with which of its brand names to use, choosing in 1972 to develop a single U.S. brand, Exxon. Up until 1989, when Exxon moved to Irving to save money, the oil giant maintained its headquarters in New York.

In 1999, Exxon merged with Mobil. By then the Humble brand was long gone. “It’s a company that became truly global,” Pratt said and they needed a global name.” history of Humble Oil