John D. Rockefeller became a titan. His brother tried to become a rancher

Postcards of the Rockefeller Ranch

Franklin "Frank" Rockefeller

Rockefeller Archives

John D. Rockefeller’s brother hated being called John D. Rockefeller’s brother. His name was Franklin (though he only went by Frank), and he was known as the other Rockefeller brother. As John D. Rockefeller assembled the Standard Oil empire, his brother looked to a new Western empire called Kansas to try to make his own fortune. He became a stock man whose ambitions settled on a dream of his own: Frank Rockefeller wanted to be a rancher.

Frank was always the difficult one

The Rockefeller family was a complicated one from the beginning—father Bill Rockefeller was, at best, a glorified con man. But the relationship between the Rockefeller brothers was just as turbulent. As detailed in the massive Rockefeller biography Titan, Frank was always boisterous and wild (and John D. was always cautious and calculating). Frank’s enthusiasm never matched John D.’s ruthless competence. When he was 16, Frank became the only family member to sign up for the Civil War. He was underage, so he wrote 18 on the soles of his shoes to remember what age he was supposed to say he was. He was wounded twice in battle. Throughout his life, he swung up and down while John stayed steady. One observer wrote that Frank was “hot-tempered and vindictive…Sometimes I have thought that he was insane. He was a very violent man. Perhaps brooding over some wrong, real or imaginary, had upset his mind.”

After the war, John soars while Frank booms and busts

John D. Rockefeller had a steady climb to success while Frank only stumbled. He had a long list of failed investments, including railroads, ranches, and an oil company that competed with his own brother’s. He lived beyond his means, buying gigantic homes and ranches, and when they failed he asked his brothers for massive loans. “I can’t understand why this vein of ill luck & misfortune holds to me in every piece of property I have,” he wrote John in 1884. But he matched his pleas with petty remarks and feuding. He testified against Standard Oil in Congress, started a competing company, and slammed his brother in the press (he told one reporter that he should have shot his brother a long time ago). Still, he took money from John and his other brother, Will, living off their largess and invented jobs, like second Vice President of Standard Oil Ohio. In 1900, he left Standard and tried to change his life with a new ranch that was bigger than ever.

A new start with big bull and a ranch that was “an earthly paradise”

Rockefeller had owned ranches before, but in 1900 he was determined to truly become “a stock man.” And he made some inroads. In 1900, he was elected President of the Hereford Breeder’s Association, and the next year, the Wichita Daily Eagle called Rockefeller’s ranch an “earthly paradise.” Frank said “the happiest moments of my life are spent in this ranch out here in Kansas.” There were fifteen immense barns on the property and many types of cattle. He’d convinced himself, and the world, that he was a rancher. Rockefeller resented being called John D.’s brother, and he equally hated when his ranch was called a plaything. That may have been why he spent $5,050 on a bull.

Rockefeller buys the world’s best bull

Frank was determined to start off his refocused life as a rancher on the right foot. He was going to become a breeder (he said his love of animals began when he bred guinea pigs to be a certain color). The new vocation meant paying up for the best. In 1900 in Kansas City, he bought Columbus XVII, a $5,050 Hereford bull. The bull was actually raised on Queen Victoria’s farm in England before being brought to the United States. That led to Rockefeller’s Presidency of the breeding association and a donation to the state agricultural college, which he gave a pricey calf. Rockefeller was fit to be a ranch hand—he stood 5’11 and weighed 200 pounds. And by all reports, he had the plainspoken demeanor of a Kansan rather than a millionaire. His new career was earning attention, and his ample investment into the land had built an impressive ranch. Rockefeller developed ambitions and theories about his type of stock. He grew 500 acres of alfalfa to help feed his cattle, and he believed that breeding hornless cattle was the future of the industry. He even took on a crusade to save the buffalo, whose endangerment personally offended him. But Frank Rockefeller was still the man who his brother had always carried.

The ranch was still just a “millionaire’s plaything”

“Not one of my blood,” he declared, “will ever rest upon land controlled by that monster, John D. Rockefeller.”As hard as Rockefeller tried to be a rancher, he was still a Rockefeller. His ranch had heat, water, and a tennis court, and he entertained guests from around the region. As much as he liked to portray himself as a simple ranch hand, he employed many men to manage the property for him. There was real excitement at the ranch, which Rockefeller had taken to calling Soldier Creek. He got into a feud when his land was fenced in, and the feuds intensified into fence-cutting and attacks, but Rockefeller was in Cleveland during most of it. At the 1902 stock fair, a calf named Busy Body was a star attraction at the show, but Rockefeller wasn’t there to show it off. Instead, an Englishman named Reeves managed the stock that he’d brought Rockefeller from England. Another man, Newt Hall, managed the ranch until 1906.

Frank still found time to feud with his brother, however. In 1898, when John put an obelisk on the family’s Cleveland cemetery plot, Frank had his two children’s caskets moved to another section. “Not one of my blood,” he declared, “will ever rest upon land controlled by that monster, John D. Rockefeller.”

The ranch fades, and so does Frank

In 1913, Frank claimed satisfaction with his life as a rancher. “I’d rather live on a 150-acre Western homestead,” he said, “with a homesteader’s usual fare, than live like John D. does in his palaces. He’s living in a regular hell. He’s the most lonesome man on the face of earth.” In 1916, he said, “next to my family, I love animals more than anything else in the world.” But the ranch didn’t keep up with Frank’s fantasy. In 1915, the last buffalo was auctioned off and served for a Christmas dinner. Two years later, Frank Rockefeller died, leaving behind his wife and three daughters. The next year, the ranch’s cattle were sold to the highest bidder. Even though Frank requested he be buried in a plot separate from his brothers, John canceled his dead brother’s outstanding loans.

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