Who Was EW Marland?

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In 1908 E. W. Marland came to Oklahoma after losing his fortune in the Pennsylvania oil fields in the panic of 1907 and by 1920 had reestablished himself and started the Marland Oil Company in Ponca City with a fortune estimated at $85 million (roughly $910 million in modern dollars). Marland was a visionary and not only pioneered the use of geophysical techniques in the oil industry but was years ahead of his time as an employer providing housing, loans, medical care, and other benefits for the thousands of employees who worked at his refineries and pipelines. But misfortune would strike Marland and in 1928 his oil empire was destroyed by J.P. Morgan's banking interests. Marland was forced out of the oil company he had founded when bankers merged it with Continental Oil Company and renamed the company Conoco.
Willie Cries was the first successful oil well drilled by EW Marland in 1911. Photo: Wikipedia
Marland founded the 101 Ranch Oil Company, located on the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch, and drilled his first successful oil well at Willie Cries on land which he leased in 1911 from the Ponca Tribe Photo: Wikipedia
By early 1921 Marland consolidated all of his oil operations under the auspices of the Marland Oil Company. Headquartered in Ponca City, where its major refining facility was located, the firm continued its phenomenal growth pattern by absorbing numerous small oil companies. Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society
EW Marland pioneered the use of geological techniques in the oil industry and was years ahead of his time as an employer providing housing, loans, medical care, and other benefits for thousands of employees who worked at his refineries and pipelines but Marland lost everything to the powerful JP Morgan banking interests - even losing his name on the oil company that he founded in Ponca City.

by Hugh Pickens (Po-Hi '67)


When I was growing up in Ponca City, I didn't know who Marland was. I knew that there was a statue of a man in front of the civic center and I knew that the statue in front of the civic center was of the the man who had built the Pioneer Woman Statue, but I had no idea who Marland really was or what he had done fore the community of Ponca City. Remember I grew up in Ponca City in the 1950's and 60's. In 1968, the year I went away to college at OSU 1916 home was purchased by the city in 1968 and was opened to the public becoming the Ponca City Cultural Center and Indian Museum.

As far as the Marland Mansion went, it's purchase and public viewing was still almost ten years in the future. No one in town had seen the inside of the Marland for a generation and if we thought about the Mansion at all (which we didn't) it was a huge compound surrounded by high, intimidating walls where the mysterious members of a Catholic religious order lived and worked.

I know this idea is not unique. I have often spoken to other members of my generation who came of age in the baby boom generation and among most of us there was awareness whatsoever of the origins of out community.

Our parents didn't speak to us about Marland. You know how members of the "Greatest Genration" came back from World War II and never talked openly about what they had experienced in the war? Something similar happened with the generation that grew up with the Marland Oil Company in the1920's. It was as if something so awful and unspeakable had happened with Marland's loss of his company and his marriage to Lydie, that nobody would talk about as collective amnesia over Ponca City for the 35 years that transpired after 1940 Marland died in 1940 to when Lydie returned to Ponca City and the the city purchased the Mansion in 1975.

The experience of those who grew up in the 1970's and 1980's was completely different. Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle, going away to college in 1968 and not returning to live in Ponca City until my retirement nearly forty years later in 2005, and although some of the old landmarks are now gone like the Jens Marie Hotel and the Arcade Hotel, I still see Ponca City through the eyes of a child of the 60's.

Today, even though all Ponca Citians now know who Marland is, my impression is that they picture Marland as the man in marble sitting in his chair in from of the civic center - the man in his 50's or 60's who died after losing his fortune, living in the chauffer's quarters on the estate within sight of the "Palace on the Prairie" that he had built at the height of his empire.

But that Marland was not the Marland who built an empire. In this essay I would like to reclaim the vibrant, ambitious, and farsighted businessman who held sway over this territory and built a kingdom making Ponca City what it is today.

The Businessman Who Built Marland Oil Company

Picture a frontier town over one hundred years ago, just one year after that territory and became a state. The town's population is just over 2,500 about the size of Newkirk.

The town is only 15 years old and there are only a few brick buildings on main street which is still unpaved and mainly wooden buildings bars, saloons, dry goods stoes, with wooden sidewalks in front of them. Horses are tied to hitching posts outside most of the stores.

A mysterious stranger arrives to town on the train with nothing more than a cloth bag for his clothes and a letter of introduction to the owners of the largest ranch in the county. He is 25 years old and says he is a lawyer from back east and that he has come to the town to search for gold - black gold.

The townspeople treat him with kindness and generosity and even though he doesn't hae much money he is able to stay at the local hotel on credit.

In a few days he travels the largest ranch in the county - over 100,000 acres running cattle - and there he presents his letter of introduction to the ranch owner who takes him around to show him the operation. The stranger tramps the land around the ranch studying the outcroppings of rocks and walks for miles over the broad and rolling prairie carefully inspecting the formations.

Here's what the stranger wrote in a letter:

"George L. Miller was showing me around the Ranch one day and we rode up a hill to see the cemetery of the Ponca Indians. The Indians placed their dead on wicker platforms above the ground. I noticed by the outcropping of the rock on the hill that the hill was not only a topographical high but also a geological high. A little further investigation showed it to be a perfect geological dome."

Convinced that the Indian cemetery was a distinct oil formation, the stranger told the ranch owner he would agree to drill a test well if he would give him a least on the ranch lands and help him obtain the necessary leases from the Indian tribe.

The first well was drilled near the ranch headquarters under the most adverse conditions. There were no heavy draft teams in the area, nothing but light horses and cow ponies. Lubering teams of oxen with their heavy yokes had to be used to haul rig timbers, tools, boilers, and casings frosm the railroad station in Bliss t the well location. The nearest supply house was 125 miles away in Tulsa.

The well was drilled with old Manila cable to a depth of 2,700 feet but was abandoned as a non-producer.

After this failure, a location was made for a second well about five miles from the first on a piece of land called the Iron Thunder Tract under conditions even worse than the first. At a depth of 500 feet they struck gas in spring of 1910. A gas line was laid from the well to the ranch to provide fuel tin handling the crops grown on the land. But still no black gold.

A third well was drilled 1800 feet from the second and it struck gas too. Eight wells were drilled and not one produced petroleum. Finally just as they were about to give up a ninth well was drilled and from the bottom of that well came oil, and complete justification for the stranger's belief in the Mid-Continent field.

The first prospecting was done against the advice of experienced oil men in the rich Mid-Continent field further east in Osage County who held to the theroy that there were no profitable fields west of the Red Bed formation whithc begins after passing westward across the Arkansas River.

By 1918, ten years after he arrived in Ponca City, Marland began to consolidate his holdings into the Marland Oil Company and to build the Marland Refinery. There were other refineries in Kay County, one in Tonkawa close the three sands, one in Balckwell. There was nothing pre-ordained about building a refinery in Ponca City. It would have made just as much sense to build his refinery in Tonkawa or in Bliss next to the 101 Ranch. In fact, the citizens of Bliss official changed the name of their city to Marland at least partially in the hopes that Marland would locate his headquarters there.

But Marland never forgot the friendliness and generosity that had first been shown him when he arrived in Ponca City and he built his headquarters and the Marland REfinery there where it has provided employement and benefits for tens of thousands of employees over the past 94 years.

Marland wasn't the only one to strike it rich in North-Central Oklahoma. Dozens of men made their fortunes from the oil in Kay County.

But many of them left, went back home to the east to live off their riches. Marland was determined to make his home in the city that had treated him so well. From a sleepy frontier town of 2,500 when he arrived, Ponca City swelled to a city ten times that large and Marland had a huge part in bringing benefits to the citizens of the community.

Marland Love for Ponca City

The other surpirising thing about EW is that he had so many oprotunities to elave Ponca City and make a fine home for himself and his wife on Park AVe in the hub of the unvierse New York Cuty.

But he always returned.

This was his kingdowm. The town he had buitl from a lazy frontier town into a city - the town he had given so much to.

Marland's Rises and Falls

We all know the story of how EW Marland lost his company in 19xx.

It is a story of Greek tragedy where the gods carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction

He committeed the sin of hubris and was guilty of the sin of pride.

But EW Marland had one more resurrection left in hom.

He emerged in 19xx as a candidate for US Congress

Governor in 19xx.

Some say that his marriage to Lydie and even his construction of the Pioneer Woman statue were done with an eye to an eventually politcal pioner.

He and fell three times.

Even when he was sick and living in the chaufer's quarters he was plotting another triumph but sickness brought him down in his proime

Marland's Vision

I like to think of EW Marland, sitting with lydie in a lawn chari outside the chaufer's quarters siping a ice tea, knowing his days are number and wonder how to leave a elgacy to Ponca City.

EW was not popular at the time of his death.

By deciding to sell the Mansion to the Catholic Chaurhc he was able to entrust his treasure to an organiation that had survivied for 2,000 years and knew how to persist.

I sometimes wonder if EW knew that eventually, maby 50 or 100 eyars later, the borthers would elave, and his treasured manison would eventually belong to the people of Ponca City who is who he built ift for in the fisrt place.

He knew that he would never live to see that day, but he hoped that his beloved wife Lydie would live to see the manion a part of his legacy.

And it came true.