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Flagler: Rockefeller Partner and Florida Baron.

Flagler: Rockefeller Partner and Florida Baron This fine example of business biography examines the career of Henry Flagler, and, in so doing, describes the early years of Standard Oil as well as the turn-of-the-century development of the Florida resort cities of St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami. The narrative begins with the young Flagler who, aided by family connections, became a successful Ohio merchant and came into contact with John D. Rockefeller. In search of greater opportunities, the entrepreneur left for Michigan and entered the salt busines. But, because of what Flagler called "unbridled competition," his firm went bankrupt in the 1860s. Rather than destroying him, the failed venture taught Flagler the importance of decreasing competition through cooperation. He applied this lesson successfully later during his partnership with Rockefeller.

Following his problems in Michigan, Flagler returned to Ohio and, with borrowed money, entered the oil refining business by buying into Rockefeller's company, which became Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler (RA&F). Although it was Rockefeller who laid out the company's overall policies, Flagler became indispensable as the negotiator of deals with various railroads. The agreements he engineered cut the firm's shipping costs through a system of rebates and drawbacks and gave it an advantage over its competitors. In 1870, when RA&F incorporated Standard Oil, Flagler was named its secretary-treasuser. In this position, he applied his ideas of cooperation to establish a system of alliances between Standard Oil and other major refiners.

Flagler continued to play an essential role in Standard Oil during its formative years. But beginning in 1882, with the creation of the Standard Oil Trust, he concerned himself less and less with the firm. Three years later, in 1885, he retired from active involvement in the oil business (although he remained vice-president of Standard Oil of New Jersey until 1908 and a director of the holding company until 1911).

By the 1880s, Flagler was a wealthy man, but his "penchant for activity" kept him from retirement. Originally investing in northheastern Florida almost as a hobby, Flagler the builder soon became deeply involved, and this intended diversion became a second full-time career. He first visited St. Augustine with his second wife during their honeymoon in 1883 and was impressed with the area's mild climate. Two years later, Flagler, believing he could transform the city into a "Newport of the South" and attract wealthy vacationers, built the luxurious Ponce de Leon Hotel. He followed this resort with several other projects that soon led to his domination of the city.

Although poor weather conditons and an outbreak of yellow fever soon dampened his high hopes for St. Augustine, Flagler was already turning his attention southward. His involvement in several railroads--especially the Florida East Coast Railway--connected resorts-to-be with the wealthy clientele of northern cities, and his dream of creating a "Newport of the South" became reality with the building of Palm Beach. Making continued use of the "Flagler System" (the combination of railroads, hotels, and real estate), he later expanded into Miami.

Largely responsible for the beginnings of the tourist industry in Florida, Flagler is unfortunately most often remembered for the Key West Extension of his railroad. Completed in 1912, the venture proved to be one of his few failures. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, it was replaced by a highway.

Based mainly on primary material at the Rockefeller Archieves and the Henry Flagler Museum and on secondary sources, this book will be valuable to those in the fields of business history and the history of the South. Akin succeeds in presenting a balanced portrait of Flagler the man and his contributions to economic and regional history. One wishes, however, that the author had made a greater effort to compare Flagler's activities in Florida to those of other regional urban entrepreneurs or to other large-scale developers such as Henry Huntington in southern California. The book also could have been strengthened by more maps giving the reader a better grasp of where and what Flagler was doing. These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Akin has produced a well-written and important study that deserves a wide audience.

William B. Friedricks is assistant professor of history at Simpson College. He is the author of several articles, including "A Metropolitan Entrepreneur Par Excellence: Henry E. Huntington and the Growth of Southern California, 1898-1927," Business History Review (1989).
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Author:Friedricks, William B.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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