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The Other Oil Tycoon

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The head gardener, John Walquist, was making his Saturday afternoon rounds at 3:30 PM on November 20, 1915. About fifty feet from the house, on the south driveway, he found a package containing four one-pound sticks of dynamite.

A trip wire was set to trigger the bomb if the Archbold car drove over it. John D. Archbold was then taking a Hudson River pleasure sail on his yacht, the Vixen.

The estate, called Cedar Cliff, stood across Broadway from Transfiguration Church and is now a condominium development known as the Quay. If you look closely, you can see the old stone pillars marking the entrance. Archbold was a millionaire, the president of Standard Oil after John D. Rockefeller, and a Tarrytowner for roughly the last thirty years of his life.

The Tarrytown police believed that the bomb was the work of the International Workers of the World (the I.W.W.—the "Wobblies") and that the assassination attempt was precipitated by the execution of Joseph Hillstrom in Salt Lake City the day before. "Joe Hill" was an I.W.W. member and writer of working class songs who wrote on the eve of his death by firing squad, "Don't waste any time mourning—organize!" A year and a half earlier the I.W.W. had been to Tarrytown on two occasions, protesting the industrial policies of the John D. Rockefellers—junior and senior. This was followed by a fatal explosion at an illicit bomb factory in New York. The Tarrytown police combed the countryside for the bomber; armed guards were posted at the Archbold home, and security was tightened at other Tarrytown estates.

The attempt on the life of John Archbold was the first in a series of inauspicious events. In February of 1916, the John D. Archbold, the biggest oil tanker in the world, was driven from its moorings by high winds in New York Harbor and smashed into another ship. The tanker contained 3,000,000 gallons of oil destined for the war-embroiled allies in Europe. In the same month, Archbold's daughter-in-law, May Barron Archbold, was bitten by a rattlesnake on the Archbold country estate in Georgia. She recovered from the bite, and—in testimony to her grit—Mrs. Archbold shot the snake.

One year after the attempted bombing of November 1915, John Archbold suffered an attack of appendicitis. He was treated by a platoon of doctors and nurses, and an operation was performed at the patient's home. The family chauffer donated blood by transfusion, but on December 5, 1916 the oil magnate succumbed to his illness at the age of sixty-eight. "I have been in his office for six years," said one associate, "and I have never see him angry at anything."

His funeral was the biggest in Tarrytown to date; it took seven cars to transport the flowers to the cemetery. The tomb is one of the finest in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. In tribute, Tarrytown businesses closed their doors between 10:30 AM and 11:00 AM that day—an appropriately brief business tribute to a businessman. Archbold's estate was valued at over $41,000,000. Tarrytown mayor, Frank Pierson, was quoted as saying, "Mr. Archbold did a lot for the community and was held in high esteem." A John D. Rockefeller biographer later described Archbold as "a gay-hearted, resourceful, loyal little man."

Archbold had purchased the William E. Dodge (Phelps-Dodge) estate, Cedar Cliff, in 1885 and became a "Tarrytowner." Unlike many wealthy Tarrytown homeowners who used their estates as summerhouses, Archbold and his family actually lived there year-around. He commuted to New York on his yacht and let local boys dive from his private dock and boathouse. He even had a float installed for them. In 1897, he and his two daughters attended a cornerstone ceremony for Transfiguration Church which was built opposite the family residence on Broadway.

John Archbold was born in Leesburg, Ohio on July 26, 1848, the son of a Baptist minister who died very young and left his family in financial straits. As a boy, Archbold worked in a local store for $1.50 per week, contributing to his family. He read newspapers and stories that stimulated his imagination. In 1864, when still only fifteen, he began dealing in the nascent oil industry at Titusville, Pennsylvania. At nineteen, he was a partner of the firm. The following year, he opened a New York office for his company. By 1875, he was the president of the Acme Oil Company, and that year he met John D. Rockefeller.

In those days Archbold was described as a gambling, hard-drinking oilman. He was likened to a short, 130-pound firecracker, "quick-witted and optimistic, a jovial raconteur." Another historian sketched him physically as "round-faced, bright-eyed, and peppery, with a tiny body and a big head." In the years before he joined ranks with John D. Rockefeller, Archbold was a persistent opponent and rival of Standard Oil, one of a motivated group of leading oil men seeking to break the stranglehold of Rockefeller partners on the oil industry. Rockefeller decided it would be easier to recruit Archbold than to fight him, and his younger protégé went zealously to work for Standard Oil. He became Rockefeller's front man—friendly, diplomatic and persuasive. Archbold's early missions were to buy up competing refineries and make it impossible for any holdouts to ship and sell their oil. Rockefeller dubbed him, "a man of imagination, of courage, or great persuasiveness, with a genius for reading men and dealing with them."

The protégé was a big drinker; his mentor was a teetotaler. Archbold's drinking increased even after promising Rockefeller he would quit. When Rockefeller requested again that he stop, Archbold repented and wrote to Rockefeller once a week for eight months to assure him that he was abstaining. Not an early optimist about the possibilities of significant oil discovery in the West, Archbold once said, "Why, I'll drink every gallon of oil produced west of the Mississippi."

In May 1878, Archbold was involved in a bizarre incident reported in the New York Times. While on a train trip he reported his wallet missing; he described the suspect as looking similar to himself. Archbold was soon set upon and manhandled by a police officer before he could explain that he was the victim! No wonder he preferred taking his yacht to work.

When Archbold gave grand jury testimony for Standard Oil in 1879, he set "The Standard's" mode of reply to lawsuits and government attempts at regulation in the decades to come—"flippant, arrogant, glib, and high-handed" was how his testimony was characterized. In the mid-1890s, Rockefeller gave his vice president, John Archbold, control of day-to-day Standard Oil operations. Living about a mile from each other, they consulted frequently.

Sometimes styled a puppet of Rockefeller, Archbold was very capable of initiating, what appear to be, his own programs. He suggested to President Theodore Roosevelt that if the federal government made a deal on anti-trust regulation, Standard Oil would help get Roosevelt re-elected. He was all too willing to subvert the ethics of politicians with cash—"just tell me if you need more boys," and even ran a number of his own puppets for election. In 1908, the nation and its government were shocked when William Randolph Hearst exposed correspondence between Archbold and his political henchmen. Hearst purchased the letters from a Standard Oil office boy—the son of Archbold's Tarrytown butler. In 1911 Archbold succeeded Rockefeller as Standard Oil's President, in title as well as in fact.

Although he made regular, small donations to the Tarrytown fire department, it appears that the one great recipient of Archbold's largess was Syracuse University, to which he gave about one million dollars. Critics called the gifts a transparent attempt at whitewashing his tarnished image. The university did not see it that way, and made Archbold its president.

After his death, Archbold's family did not reside long at the Tarrytown mansion. In 1919, Elizabeth Duncan (sister of Isadora) moved her dance school there. Later, the estate was home to the Saint Vincent de Paul School until it was developed in 1980.

Henry Steiner is the village historian of Sleepy Hollow. He is an associate broker with Hudson Homes in Tarrytown.
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