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Harry Sinclair

druggist-turned-oil tycoon

Harry Ford Sinclair

Harry Ford Sinclair was born in Benwood, West Virginia, on July 6, 1876. His family moved to Independence, Kansas, when he was a child, and he was educated in the Independence public schools. He graduated from the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy intending to follow in his father's footsteps (his father was a druggist), but his attempts to operate drug stores in Independence and Coffeyville failed, leaving him in debt.

After his attempts to operate drug stores failed, Sinclair began selling lumber for oil derricks from a horse-drawn wagon in southeast Kansas. The money he made from this venture allowed him to deal in oil leases on the side, and he quickly gained a reputation for having an uncanny ability to pick oil leases that would become profitable. A 1904 strike in Kiowa, Oklahoma, made him a millionaire, and he was the richest man in Kansas by 1907.

Sinclair may not have been a successful druggist, but he was definitely a very successful and shrewd oilman. He bought oil wells when production prices were low and then sold them when prices rose, and by the time he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1913 he owned 62 oil companies, 8 drilling rigs, and, with his brother, controlled a Tulsa bank. He founded Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation on May 1, 1916, with headquarters in New York City, and then built it into Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation, which controlled all aspects of petroleum production from exploration to retail sales and was the largest independent oil company in the country by World War I.

Sinclair logo

Sinclair's reputation was seriously tarnished in the 1920's as a result of a scandal known as Teapot Dome. The trouble began when a Sinclair subsidiary was awarded a federal contract to develop a naval petroleum reserve in Wyoming without having to go through the competitive bidding process. An investigation into the contract revealed that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall had received a major loan from Sinclair, and it was alleged that the contract was in fact Fall's way of repaying that loan. In 1924, Fall was convicted of accepting a bribe and imprisoned, and the government sued Sinclair to rescind the contract. The trial court ruled that the contract was legally awarded, but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the lower court on a technicality in 1927. Sinclair himself went on trial for bribery in October 1927, but the judge declared a mistrial within two weeks after learning that Sinclair had hired a detective agency to shadow each member of jury. Sinclair was ultimately convicted of obstructing justice and spent six months in jail.

Although the Teapot Dome Scandal tarnished Sinclair's image, it did not dampen his business enthusiasm, and he remained in control of Sinclair Oil until retiring to California in 1949. He died in Pasadena on November 10, 1956.

Note: The famous Sinclair dinosaur is an Apotasaurus, and it has been a registered Sinclair trademark since 1932.

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Sinclair Oil

World War I

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This page was last updated on July 05, 2018.