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From Teenage Oil Field Work to Founding Texaco

Photo Credit: Oliclimb

Texaco’s Joseph S. Cullinan

Who’s the man responsible for putting the “Tex” in Texas on countless gas station signs across America and around the world? Joseph S. Cullinan.

Not one of the best known nor most colorful oil wildcatting legends, nor anywhere near the richest, Cullinan nonetheless had an impact on the oil business as big as anyone. Born near Sharon, Pa. on New Year’s Eve in 1860, he started working in the Pennsylvania oil fields at age 14. He became an expert in virtually every aspect of the oil game by the time he was invited to Texas in 1897 by the city of Corsicana to oversee its gushing field that was opened by accident four years earlier by prospectors drilling for water. It was the first significant oil and natural gas patch in the Lone Star State.

While there, Cullinan opened the first oil refinery west of the Mississippi. The operation eventually became the Magnolia Oil Company, whose winged-horse Pegasus emblem became the famed symbol for Mobil gas stations after Standard Oil of New York acquired its ownership in a stock swap in 1925.

He also came up in Corsicana with such innovations as using oil to power locomotives and utilizing natural gas for lighting and heating. Upset at the wasteful and polluting practice by early drillers of dumping crude oil, Cullinan was influential in getting the Texas Legislature to pass the state’s first petroleum conservation law.

After making Houston synonymous with oil, Cullinan helped further it both in commerce and culture

After Spindletop came in at the beginning of 1901, Cullinan headed to Beaumont and started the The Texas Fuel Company, soon after renamed The Texas Company, which in an early move of corporate branding later became known as Texaco. For many years it was the only company retailing gas in all 50 American states, and its red and white logo with a star and ‘T’ became iconic in national culture (along with such advertising jingle lines as “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star” back when gas stations were full service, including auto repair).

A 1903 strike in the Sour Lake patch made The Texas Company a major oil producer as well as refiner. Two years later Cullinan moved the firm to Houston, and it was soon followed by other oil ventures, establishing the city as America’s petroleum center. In 1913, Cullinan was ousted from The Texas Company’s presidency after a stock proxy battle with East Coast investors. He continued to be successful in drilling and refining in Texas.

After making Houston synonymous with oil, Cullinan helped further it both in commerce and culture. He was a prime proponent of developing the Houston Ship Channel, served as the president of the city’s chamber of commerce from 1913 to 1919, and was a major supporter of the Houston Symphony and Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Houston Negro Hospital. In 1916 Cullinan bought a 37 acre plot in order to create an enclave where he and his friends could live in close proximity. It became the walled-in Houston neighborhood of Shadyside, a precursor of today’s exclusive gated communities. With its 16 grand homes and no businesses or above-ground utility lines, it epitomizes prosperous and graceful Texas big money living.

If all that weren’t enough, Cullinan also left a mark on the national landscape as the chairman of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Committee. A friend of President Herbert Hoover, he served as an advisor to the national Food Commission during World War I. While visiting Hoover in 1937 at the former-president’s home in Palo Alto, Calif., Cullinan caught pneumonia and died on March 11 of that year.

His last name may not resonate in the American oil business pantheon like Hunt, Bass or Richardson. But Joseph Cullinan left an indelible legacy within the petroleum industry, Houston, the nation and popular culture that attest to the impact of his life and career.

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