Oklahoma Governors 1935-1939: Ernest W. Marland – Pioneer Man (1874-1941)
Pennsylvania-born and –reared like fellow Sooner oil titan Tom Slick (Chapter 1), by thirty years of age, E. W. Marland had parleyed his intelligence, self-study of geology, energy, and winsome powers of persuasion into a financial fortune in the oil boom environs of western Pennsylvania.
The Panic of 1907 national economic depression destroyed the fortune, but not Marland’s business, geological, and deal making brilliance. The next year he came to Oklahoma, introduced to the Miller Brothers of 101 Ranch (Chapter 1) fame by a relative. After surveilling the Millers’ properties in the Washington, Payne, and Kay Counties of northern Oklahoma, west and northwest of such established oil fields as Bartlesville and Glen Pool, Marland decided their surface geology indicated oil. He formed the 101 Ranch Oil Company with the Millers and others, and raised additional financing from business associates back east.
Within a couple of years, Marland had drilled seven dry holes. He struck a bonanza on the eighth, and thus launched what historian Gaston Litton called “a twenty-year tale of empire building in the United States and Mexico.” Marland perceived that his company’s most profitable course lay in national gas production. He expanded drilling operations into Texas, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, California, and even Mexico. By 1920, his fortune totaled nearly a billion dollars in 2010s currency.
Employing the experience and lessons learned back in Pennsylvania, including his observance of Standard Oil’s success formula, Marland also recognized the need to construct a full-orbed energy enterprise that incorporated drilling, production, storage, transportation, refining, and retailing. By 1921, he had liquidated 101 Ranch Oil and consolidated those operations to form Marland Oils, which featured a distinctive triangular red sign. He based it in Ponca City, where his major refinery resided.
Rise and Fall
Marland pressed forward his comprehensive strategy by purchasing numerous smaller oil companies and shrewdly retaining their most talented executives for his own organization. He also built a network of six hundred gasoline filling stations across eleven states, and a distribution chain for his products in seventeen states and eleven foreign countries. J. P. Morgan Companies in New York City financed a growing portion of these endeavors.
Marland’s creative imagination further evidenced itself, along with his generosity, in a monumental “paying back” to the city, state, and people where he had won fame and fortune. He built churches, hospitals, schools, youth centers, city parks, civic improvements, and lots more. Historian Bobby D. Weaver chronicled how he also provided Marland Oil’s employees unprecedented perks, including inexpensive but quality company housing, free insurance, unusually high wages, and the best benefits and working conditions in Oklahoma.
Yet the flamboyance that helped fuel Marland’s success spawned an increasing indebtedness to the afore-mentioned J. P. Morgan. The latter’s more conservative business philosophy clashed with Marland’s, and frequently thwarted his risky schemes. In 1928, an oversupply of oil, insupportable debt, and Marland’s lack of corporate fiscal frugality prompted Morgan’s overthrow of him and subsuming of Marland Oils into Continental Resources, which grew to fame as Conoco. Morgan offered Marland a toothless position and fat salary if he left Ponca City, but the deposed titan refused, as both his power and second fortune evaporated by 1930.
Congressman and Governor
Exhibiting the classic pioneer spirit that forged his legend, Marland rose up in 1932, shucked the Republican Party allegiance he shared with the eastern financiers he now loathed, and won election to Congress as the first-ever Democrat from the Eighth District since World War I.
As the twin horrors of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl reached their devastating zeniths in 1934, he campaigned statewide for governor on a platform of bringing the New Deal to Oklahoma. This played well at first, sweeping Marland into office in a landslide. When the more conservative legislature and public divined how much money Marland’s grandiose notions for rescuing the state from economic calamity would cost, and that little of it had tax revenues to pay for it, they turned away.
His “Little New Deal” proved exactly that, and the questionable judgment he frequently exhibited short circuited his political career. He lost one bid for the U.S. Senate that he brazenly engineered right in the middle of his gubernatorial term, another in the final year of his term, and a subsequent run for Congress.
Despite Marland’s failure to imbue the state with Roosevelt’s New Deal, he had major triumphs. These included establishing the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety and its Highway Patrol, a pension system for the elderly, a hydroelectric dam on the Grand River, the Red River Denison Dam, and helping birth the Interstate Oil Compact Commission.
If the Pioneer Woman statue proved Marland’s most memorable legacy, Lyde Roberts Marland remains perhaps his most haunting. Marland and his wife Mary, who sired no children of their own, adopted their nephew George and niece Lyde as children. Marland lavished love, gifts, and comforts on both. After Mary died in 1926, Marland quietly annulled his guardianship of Lyde. He married her in 1928. He was fifty-four, Lyde twenty-eight.
The Marlands had barely moved into his great Ponca City mansion, “The Palace on the Plains,” when the loss of Marland Oil and financial ruin forced them into a nearby structure built for servants. Marland could not even pay the monthly electric bill for the mansion, which totaled many thousands of dollars in 2010s value. Shy and nervous in crowds, Lyde retreated from view during her husband’s years in high office. After his death, she lived for some years in a small cottage built for workmen, the only property the Marlands retained. Then she disappeared for over two decades, periodically sighted such as at a 1967 anti-Vietnam War protest in New York City.
She returned to Ponca City as unannounced as she had departed, living out the final decade of her life in her cottage. She died at age eighty-seven in 1987. Six people came to the funeral of the woman whom a biographer christened The Princess of the “Palace on the Prairie.”
Want to see more, and hear the Oklahoma Gold! podcast on Marland, visit The Wildcatter and His Princess.
Marland Election Record
1932 U.S. House Won
1934 Oklahoma Governor Won
1936 U.S. Senate Lost
1938 U.S. Senate Lost
1940 U.S. House Lost
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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