John D. Rockefeller's Connection to Cleveland

American oil magnate and philanthropist, John Davidson Rockefeller
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

John D. Rockefeller, the "World's Richest Man" in the early 20th century, was born in the Finger Lakes region of New York but moved with his family to Northeast Ohio when he was young.

Rockefeller, who went on to found the Standard Oil Company, left his mark on Northeast Ohio, namely Cleveland, donating money for parks, buildings, and some of the area's most beloved institutions.

Rockefeller's Early Life

Rockefeller was born in Richford, New York, a small town near the Finger Lakes. His family moved to Strongsville when he was young and Rockefeller attended Cleveland's Central High School before taking a job as a clerk for Cleveland commission merchants Henry B. Tuttle and Isaac L. Hewitt.

Standard Oil Company

In 1859, Rockefeller and partner, Maurice Clark set up their own commission firm, which prospered as the city grew in the post-Civil War years.

In 1870, he left the commission business to found the Standard Oil Company, originally based in the Cleveland Flats. The company grew to become one of the largest and most successful companies in US history, eventually being split into 34 separate companies as a result of an antitrust suit.

The Cleveland Years

In Cleveland, Rockefeller ran his many Superior and West Sixth Street. He had a home on Euclid Avenue's Millionaire's Row and an eastside estate, Forest Hills, in what is now East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights.

Rockefeller married Laura Spelman, a native of Wadsworth, in 1864 and the couple had four daughters and one son. They were active members of Erie Street Baptist Church (later called Euclid Avenue Baptist Church).

Rockefeller's Contribution to Cleveland

Although he moved to New York City (with his Standard Oil Company) in 1884, Rockefeller left his mark on Northeast Ohio in the many institutions he helped to fund. Among these are:

In addition, Rockefeller left a portion of his Forest Hill estate to the cities of East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, which opened it as a park in 1942.

Onward to New York

Some say his wealth was too great for Cleveland; others cite that the Cleveland government was unkind to Rockefeller, deciding to tax him rather than encouraging his philanthropy. Either way, Rockefeller moved his family and his company to New York City in 1884, although he continued to summer at Forest Hill until the house burned to the ground in 1917.​ 

After the fire at Forest Hill, Rockefeller never returned alive to Cleveland. He spent his later years at his properties in Ormond Beach, Florida and Westchester County, New York.

Later Years and Death

John D. Rockefeller died in 1937, just months shy of his 98th birthday. The man who started his career in Northeast Ohio and who helped to fund so many Cleveland institutions returned to Cleveland to be buried at Lake View Cemetery under a simple obelisk.

Following his habit of giving dimes to the poor, visitors to Lake View place dimes on his grave in hopes of gaining Rockefeller-like wealth.

(updated 11-19-11)

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