Oklahoma pioneer Robert M. McFarlin, whose grand legacy to the state includes deeds large and small, famous as well as little known.
A Texan by birth like so many who built early Oklahoma, Robert Martin McFarlin moved to Norman with his young family in 1892 in search of better economic prospects in the Territory. Enduring the financial calamity of the Panic of 1893, the loss of an infant son to typhoid, and a scorching drought, he moved his cattle operation east to Holdenville, then bought land within the reaches of the great Glenn Pool oil strike of 1905. Partnering with son-in-law James Chapman—another Ovilla, Texas native—he commenced drilling operations with a rare blend of boldness and circumspection, and earned a financial fortune.
McFarlin Library, the University of Tulsa
McFarlin and Chapman then exploited their bold, shrewd genius into historic earnings in the titanic Cushing oil boom that began in 1912 and for a while churned out twenty percent of total American oil production. They sold their McMan Oil Company for $39 million (around $800 million in 2018 dollars) in 1916, and their later McMan Oil & Gas Company to Magnolia Petroleum for tens of millions more in 1922. McFarlin played a leading role in establishing Oklahoma as a permanent center of the petroleum industry.
The magnificent McFarlin Methodist Church building in Norman, around the time of its 1924 dedication. McFarlin, named in honor of Robert S. McFarlin, carried forward (even to today) the life of the first church established in the land opened by the Run of 1889, Norman's Methodist Episcopal South Church. Courtesy Joe Sanders.
Robert McFarlin’s enduring fame rests in his many colossal philanthropic feats. Just a few of the seemingly endless roster of his causes were the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa, for which he gave an amount roughly equivalent to $6 million in 2018 currency, McFarlin Auditorium at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, $12 million, and the McFarlin Methodist Episcopal Church South in Norman, $12 million.
Historians Carl Tyson, James Thomas, and Odie Faulk wrote this poignant account of the latter gift of McFarlin and his wife Ida:
McFarlin Auditorium, Southern Methodist University, Dallas
They had lived in Norman for half a decade in the 1890s. Their memories of this city could not have been extremely happy, for McFarlin’s business there had not done well, and their young son Robert had died there. However, they did remember the kindness shown them by local residents, particularly at the time of Robert’s death. Therefore, in December of 1924, Robert and Ida McFarlin donated…to construct a new building for the congregation. The money was given in the name of the young son who had lived his short life in Norman. This gift was the first of many philanthropic donations by the McFarlins, but those who knew them well realized that it perhaps meant more to them than any of the others that followed.
Exchange National Bank, Tulsa, 1920s, through which one of Robert McFarlin’s most legendary deeds occurred
Indeed, history has forgotten one of McFarlin’s most important acts, perhaps his most important. In the classic American film It’s a Wonderful Life, protagonist and newlywed George Bailey, portrayed by James Stewart, thwarts a Depression Era bank run with his own honeymoon money and force of moral character. Historians Odie Faulk and William Welge memorably recalled Oklahoma’s own George Bailey, Robert M. McFarlin, in their book Oklahoma: A Rich History.
Economic distress led to the collapse of Oklahoma’s bank deposit guaranty system in 1920, and several banks failed, causing great anguish to depositors (and to bank directors, who were then faced with personal as well as business liability). In Tulsa the situation was especially critical, for bankers there had advanced capital to oil men who, with prices plummeting, could not repay their debts. Early in 1920 the American National Bank closed its doors, causing anxious depositors to mill about in the street and to begin to talk in ugly tones.
Across the street at the Exchange National Bank, which had been conservative in its loans and thus was totally solvent, Robert M. McFarlin, a director, saw the mob in front of the American National Bank waving their passbooks and demanding their money. He quickly took action to prevent disaster, for he realized that the failure of one bank would strain the resources of other banks in the city and region. Emerging from the Exchange National Bank, he shouted until the mob quieted. He then calmly told the seething crowd that they could bring their passbooks into the Exchange National Bank and be paid the full amount of savings they had in the collapsing American National Bank.
This was a desperate gamble, for if all depositors in the American National accepted his offer it would have bankrupted the Exchange National Bank. After a few minutes of discussion, however, only a few in the mob accepted McFarlin’s offer; the others went home, and the banking crisis was over in Tulsa.
The McMan, biography of Robert McFarlin and his son-in-law, nephew, and business partner James Chapman