The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2006

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A Chicken Coop Enterprise

or America's Most Successful Failure


Donovan A. Shilling

We live in a world of machines—they manufacture our goods, they move us from place to place, they occupy our working hours and they help us to find relaxation during our free time. Most work smoothly because they run on a film of oil lubricant. And how does this connect Rochester to the world you may ask?

The answer lies in a chicken coop in a Monroe Avenue backyard and in a man who some people refer to as the "world's most successful failure." We'll start with the "failure" first.

He was Hiram Bond Everest, born in Pike, a tiny hamlet located some 40 miles southwest of our city. In 1849 he left his farm home with 250 dollars to try his success as a school teacher in Wisconsin. He wasn't happy and failed to continue. He then tried to raise apple trees. An especially cold winter killed his orchard. He then moved to Ohio where he started a vineyard. A killing frost wiped out this enterprise. Selling this farm he then invested in some woodland near Cleveland. There Everest tried to operate a sawmill. It burned to the ground. He rebuilt it and the mill was destroyed by fire a second time.

Interestingly, his original capital of $250 went to $9000. With this he started a new career in the spring of 1865—this time as a grocer in Rochester. Among his patrons that winter was Matthew Ewing, a carpenter, who lived on Monroe Avenue. He confided in Everest explaining his quest for a way to extract kerosene from the newly discovered Pennsylvania crude oil. Ewing felt that the world was ready for a better fuel to light their lamps.

We can imagine Mrs. Ewing insisting that Matthew keep that "smelly" crude oil out in the chicken coop while he worked on his vacuum process to distill kerosene from it. At any rate Matthew was backed with money given to him by Everest. On October 4th, 1866, the two men incorporated as partners setting up a firm called the Vacuum Oil Company. Their product, termed "Ewing's Patent Vacuum Oil," was first sold in the Boston area. After a brief number of years Ewing and Everest dissolved their partnership. Hiram wanted to create "a new and improved product from petroleum for lubricating and other purposes" Matthew wanted to concentrate on kerosene.

History loses track of Ewing, but Everest's efforts are chronicled in the 1917 issue of The Gargoyle World. In a biographical sketch it relates how Hiram filled "square cans previously used for canned oysters; and from this small beginning built a very considerable trade." The cans contained a product most useful to the agricultural society of the day. We discovered the nature of his venture on many early advertising cards promoting "Vacuum Harness oil."

One such advertisement reads:


There is no way in which a farmer can save money so easily and surely as by keeping his Harness soft and pliable with some good Harness Oil. This prevents the Leather becoming brittle and cracking. Impure Oils are often used and are apt to fry out upon the surface in summer, which is very annoying. The VACUUM HARNESS OIL will not fry out or Gum. It remains in the Leather for a long time and is an absolute preventive against leather cracking.

Another ad suggests:


A sure cure for ALL DISEASED HOOFS.
An excellent Liniment for Sprains, Wounds and other unhealthy conditions of the hoof.
It is put up in Quart, Pint and Half-Pint Cans with Gilt Labels,
and warranted full measure.

Finally, we came across an advertising card showing a livery hand seated with a pretty house maid on a box labeled Vacuum Harness Oil. The red-haired, very Irish-appearing gentleman, has one hand around the maiden's shoulder and is holding her hand with the other. His comment, written below the scene, states:

Your hand is as soft, SWEET MISTRESS O'DOYLE,
As me harness whin rubbed wid VACUUM OIL.

By 1879 Hiram Bond Everest was a very successful and wealthy man. Through his early failures he had learned much and he became considerably more wealthy when he sold 75% of his Vacuum interests to John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company. The initial $200,000 received was eventually to grow to a $76,000,000 fortune. Not too shabby for a backyard chicken coop enterprise between a grocer and a carpenter!

By now you may be able to see the connection between Everest and the World. However it was his son, Charles Marvin Everest, who would truly establish the business. Born in 1852, Charles was 25 when he took over his father's business. The business office occupied the top floor of the newly erected Wilder Building at Rochester's four corners. The vacuum distillation plant was located near the corner of Mansion and Flint Streets along the west bank of the Genesee River and the Erie Railroad line.

The harness oil plant turned to the production of lubrication oil for machinery. It was called Gargoyle Oil and the name may well have been inspired as Everest and his son looked down and across Main Street from their Wilder Block offices at the old Elwood building's gargoyle downspouts. Or perhaps they liked the poetic sound "gargoyle" made when linked with the word "oil." Whatever the origin, the green gargoyle symbol found its way around the world. National Geographic Magazine ads from the 1910 - 1914 era show its use from Cairo to Canton, from Rome to Rio and across our nation. Vacuum Oil ads also provided a handy chart showing the correct grade of oil for over 75 different makes of automobiles and trucks.

In 1911, when the United States Supreme Court dissolved Standard Oil, one part became Standard Oil of New York, popularly known as SOCONY, from its cable address. The formal name was born, Socony-Vacuum Corporation, and later, the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, Inc. This company not only processed crude from the United States but also oil from Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. Over the years the name "Vacuum" was dropped and today we know it as the Mobil Oil Corporation.

In 1917, the Rochester plant covered 20 acres, had 1200 employees and produced approximately 50,000 barrels of lubricants per month. It was not a refinery, but its 30 buildings were used for filtering, settling, blending and compounding Gargoyle Lubricants and Gargoyle Mobiloils.

Additionally, the barrel factory produced 3500 oak barrels per day while the can factory manufactured yearly "considerably over 3 million one- and five-gallon cans, to be filled with Gargoyle Mobiloils."

Now this should end the chapter, however an equally interesting tale revolves around Everest's invention of 600-weight cylinder lubricating oil. Its high viscosity was precisely what another Rochesterian had been searching for. One of the world's first automobiles, George Seldon's "road engine" required just this type of lubricant.

Only later reflection helps us to understand the timeliness of this oil's development in the 1870's. According to his son, George Seldon would never have attempted to construct an automobile without the oil. It assured the success of the internal-combustion engine. Further, George B. Seldon, Jr., the auto inventor's son, was quoted as saying "Hiram Everest was the city's greatest inventor. He made the automobile possible."

Thus we realize how truly connected Rochester was in the shaping of the world's transportation future. The next time you get your oil changed, tip your hat mentally to the memory of Hiram Bond Everest, the world's most successful failure.

Illustrations supplied by author.
© 2006, Donovan A. Shilling
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