The Age: Ross Shaw Sterling, the Making of the Man

Ross Shaw Sterling

By Marie Hughes

Much of the information for this article was taken from Ross Sterling Texan, a Memoir, and interviews with family members.

What you pour into a vessel is generally what will be returned to you.  Unless, however, you have the ability to turn water into wine; only then are you able to transform the contents within.  So it is with individuals. What they become is directly related to what has been poured into their lives by people who have invested in them.   We have an awesome responsibility as parents, for we can either set our children up for success or failure.  The wise parent realizes that it is not his words that form the character of his children, but the life that is modeled before them. 

Ross Shaw Sterling, entrepreneur extraordinaire, did not have to look elsewhere for someone to emulate, as he was blessed to have a father, Benjamin Franklin Sterling, who walked in his integrity and endeavored to live a life of moral excellence.

Benjamin Franklin Sterling, a sterling role model, trailblazer, motivator and leader

Benjamin Franklin Sterling, better known as Frank, was born 27 Nov. 1831, in Jackson, Miss. In his teens he studied medicine as an apprentice under area doctors.  He was only 17 years of age when the news of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold in far-off Coloma, Calif., reached his Mississippi home. 

By the time he reached his 18th birthday, the fever was raging within him. 

Ross Sterling said, “My father had caught the gold fever from the Forty-Niners, and it set his pioneer blood on fire, but my grandparents poured cold water on the flame.” 

Ross said they finally came to a compromise when Frank’s father told him, “If you’re dead set on going west, go to Texas. That’s not so far from home and it’s a great new state with wonderful opportunities for a young man.”

Benjamin left his aspirations to become a doctor and set off for the four-year-old Lone Star State.  After close examination, he returned to Mississippi and brought the whole family back to Texas with him. 

Craftsman and entrepreneur

A carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade, in Houston he helped build the Barnes Hotel.  He moved around to several locations eventually settling in Liberty, Texas, where he partnered with Mr. Ridley and established Sterling and Ridley’s Saddlery and Cabinet Shop, which was quite successful. 

In a 1867 Liberty newspaper was written, “A New Carriage and Wagon Manufactory is opened in Liberty by Sterling and W. L. Ridley.”  It was in Liberty where he met and married Mary Jane Bryan.

Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Sterling
Man of action and principle

“Frank never owned slaves,” said Gr. Gr. Granddaughter, Patricia Woods, “but when the Civil War broke out and the northern states were sending troops to burn our fields and homes, he raised two companies of men and went to fight for the Confederacy.  When Vicksburg fell, Captain Sterling returned to Liberty.”

Frank contracted malaria while cutting wood along Buffalo Bayou for the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad.  His health continued to remain poor, and it was suggested to him that the salt air would do him good.  So, around 1869, he leased a 160-acre farm on Double Bayou and loaded all his belongings and his wife and four children on a flatboat.  He poled the flatboat down the Trinity River, across the bay, and down Double Bayou to the farm. 

His health was restored about a year later but did not return to Liberty, as his wife urged him to stay in Double Bayou, so he bought the farm and put down roots.  Eight more children were born to the Sterling family on that farm.  Sadly, Frank’s wife Mary died in 1888 at the young age of 49, leaving him to raise his children with the help of his eldest daughter, Annie.  Four of his children had not yet reached their teen years. 

Schooner Sterling, B. F. Sterling, 2nd From Right

It was Frank Sterling who began the first school in Double Bayou in 1882, with his son, S. H. Sterling serving as schoolmaster.  Besides the everyday duties of running the farm and the school, Frank built a store in Double Bayou and in 1895 a schooner to transport produce and other products to Galveston.  He would return to Double Bayou with staples, such as coffee, sugar, hardware, and other necessities, to sell in his store. 

The magnificent tall-masted Sterling, with her billowing sails and shovel-nosed bow, was the fastest ship on Galveston Bay.   

Patricia Woods said, “The Sterling was in the Galveston Harbor when the 1900 storm hit.  Frank was staying in the house of his son, John at the time and he and his son feared the house would go down.  They put an ironing board out the window and connected it to the house next door and crawled across.  Both houses survived the storm and are still standing today. The schooner Sterling was washed up on the wharf but sustained minimal damage.”   

With the expanding population, Captain Frank Sterling founded the post office at his store in 1895 to accommodate the needs of the community.  The postmaster had the distinct honor of naming the town; Frank wanted to name it after his first-born grandchild, Gladys Barrow, but there was a town of Gladys near Beaumont, so he called it Graydon after Gladys’ brother Graydon Barrow.  Frank also used the medical training he received years ago to attend to the medical needs of Graydon, such as delivering babies and setting broken bones.

Captain Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Sterling was indeed a Sterling role model, a visionary who was able to inspire others with his spirit of adventure, courage, creativity, patriotism, strong family values, work ethic, and humility.  He raised 12 intelligent, successful children who remained devoted to each other throughout their lives, which is a testimony to his and Mary Jane’s parenting skills.   Benjamin was loved and admired by friends and family alike.

In His Father’s Footsteps
Ross Shaw Sterling

As we examine the life of Ross Shaw Sterling, the apple certainly did not fall far from the paternal tree.  Born in Graydon, Texas, on Feb. 11, 1875, he learned the value of hard work and personal integrity at a very young age.  He was well-equipped, as Frank had taught his children the value of hard work and tenacity from the time they were old enough to carry a feed bucket.  

Ross said of himself, “I was the largest and most robust of all the children.  As soon as I was old enough to feed the cows, horses, hogs, and chickens, I had to assume my share of the farm chores.  When I could handle a hoe and pick cotton, I took my turn in the fields.  My father established a little general merchandise store near the bayou, and I found work to do there as well.  My mother died in 1888, five days after my thirteenth birthday.  I never went to school after that.  I became a full-time hand on my father’s farm and in the store, along with three of my brothers, Bryan, Frank, and John.  Sam, the eldest brother, was married and did not live on the family farm.”

“Barefoot, wearing patched faded overalls and a torn straw hat, I plowed many a furrow with our mules, Kitty and Bill on our farm,” said Ross. “It was there that I first caught a vision of success that was to be the dominant influence in my career.  Chopping cotton, digging potatoes, and picking beans along with my father’s hired field hands, I discovered that by exerting a little extra effort and enterprise I could get ahead of my competitors.  I reduced the matter to a mental formula, like a principle of physics: ‘if I hit four licks while the other fellows are hitting two or three, they just can’t keep up with me.’”’  That became my life’s working philosophy.”

In 1893, when Ross was only 18 years old, his father turned the management of the farm over to him.  Ross married Maud Abbie Gage in 1898 and in 1899, at the age of 24, Ross took over the running of the post office and his father’s store.  “I took over the merchandising business and built another store down the bayou from my father’s place, right at the landing where the schooner Sterling loaded and unloaded her cargo,” said Ross. 

Making His Own Way

Ross had made an agreement with John Claud Jackson to sell him his store in 1899, but the 1900 storm delayed the final transaction. 

Ross said, “A year later, however, Jackson returned and paid me $4,500 for the place.  I was a 26-year-old country boy, so that was a small fortune in my eyes.  Money in hand, I prepared to move to Galveston.  My father thought I was making a mistake in leaving Double Bayou,” Ross declared. 

“You don’t understand what’s in my mind,” Ross told his father, ‘If I owned everything between here and the bay, and everything between the Bay and Liberty, I wouldn’t be satisfied to stay.  I feel like I’m wasting my time.’” 

Ross said his father eventually admitted he had felt the same way when his parents in Mississippi tried to talk him out of leaving home to explore the wild wooly west.  Ross and Maud moved to Galveston and Ross worked for a time in his brother, John’s produce company and then supervised a tomato packing crew in Fort Bend County.

Oats ‘N Oil

Beginning with the historic Spindletop discovery, boom towns began cropping up in Southeast Texas in the early 1900s.  Ross, with his keen business sense and background in merchandising, was quick to realize the need for feed stores to accommodate the horses and mules the oil industry required to operate their fields.  Leaving Maud with her mother in LaPorte, he rode horseback to Sour Lake, to get in on the ground floor. 

After quickly buying some cheap lots and borrowing $3,000 to build his store he was in the feed business.  He made everything so convenient for his customers that his competitors were no match for him.  “I delivered feed in my spring wagon, and in some cases I would even put it in their troughs, so that they could just turn their teams into the lot and they’d be fed.  By this time I was a 225-pounder, and I could take a 100-pound sack of oats under each arm and easily walk with them from the wagon to the purchaser’s house or barn.  My business did so well that I was soon able to buy out my competitors,” proclaimed Ross. 

In the fall of 1904, the Barrett well at Humble had blown in a gusher. 

“This news excited me,” said Ross, “I was seized with an overwhelming desire to go to Humble.

Ross decided to base his decision to go to Humble on the flip of a coin.  Heads, he’d go, tails, he’d stay in Sour Lake.  It came up heads.  He rushed home and told Maud, “Pack me a suitcase, I’m going to Humble,” he declared.  “My chance decision to go to Humble proved to be one of the turning points in my career,” proclaimed Ross. 

He quickly bought several choice corner lots getting ahead of the boom town price inflation.  He was so successful in his business decisions that he was able to pay off his feed store and move his family from Sour Lake to Houston.  Ross told a competitor one of the reasons he was so successful was, “You ask them for money, I don’t.  I just deliver the feed, and don’t collect it until the end of the month.” 

About a year after the Humble oil discovery, a drill bit struck pay sand west of Dayton and Ross promptly opened a feed store and sawmill at Dayton and established a rice farm on two leagues of land he purchased there. 

The Banking Business

“The panic of 1907 brought severe reverses to the banking business,” said Ross.  “But it brought me a windfall.”

Four private banks in the towns where he owned feed stores – Humble, Sour Lake, Saratoga, and Batson, were struggling, so he purchased them for $1,000 each and was suddenly in the banking business.  He closed the bank in Batson, transferred the account to the bank in Saratoga, and had all of the banks rechartered as state banks, relieving him of the sole responsibility of the money on deposit.

From Humble Roots to Humble Oil

In 1910, Clint Wood, an oilman Ross had known, approached him with a great opportunity.  He said a couple of producing wells on famous Moonshine Hill, that were making 50 barrels a day, could be purchased for $12,500 for both.  Clint said he would buy them himself, but he didn’t have the money.  Ross Sterling borrowed the money and brought Clint in as a half partner putting him over the operation of the wells.  He went on to purchase five acres of land containing several wells from Jim Patrick on Moonshine Hill.  Ross S. Sterling, who as a boy was a field hand in his father’s fields, now at the age of 35, was officially an oilman.

In 1911 Ross and brother Frank Jr. organized a company with friends, M. C. Hale and Charles B. Goddard.  Ross’ sister, Florence began as treasurer in 1915 and advanced to corporate secretary by 1916 and remained actively involved until she retired in 1925.   They agreed to call their new company Humble after the town of Humble.  As owner of the controlling interest, Ross S. Sterling became president of Humble Oil, Joe Fincher was secretary.  The other organizers were Clint Wood, M. C. Hale, S. K. Warrener, and Charles Goddard.  Ross said his business developed with breathtaking speed.  He no longer had time for his feed stores and banks.  Ross’ brother, Jim Sterling, the grandfather of our good friend Jim Bennett “Jimmy” Sterling III, took over the Dayton feed store and developed it into the largest business in that town.  Jim also managed the bulk station in Dayton, which sold fuel, tires, batteries, etc. to local service stations. 

In 1916 Humble Oil hit it big again in Sour Lake when they entered into a half agreement with F. B. West, they went on to drill a dozen more wells on that lease.  West eventually sold his half interest back to Ross and Ross sold that half interest to Gulf Oil Company.  “The Gulf Company got its money back many times over,” said Sterling.  “Thirty years later well No. 14 was still producing 40 barrels a day,” he exclaimed. 

Before the end of 1916 Humble Oil had brought in the first big well in Goose Creek. 

“Our Goose Creek well, Mitchell No. 1, opened the Goose Creek field,” said Sterling.  “Our driller was a robust, ruddy-cheeked young fellow named Jim Abercrombie.  Jim, a generation later, struck it rich in the Old Ocean field and he became one of Texas’ richest oil men,” Sterling stated.

With increased production and what they considered unfair pricing, the Humble Oil board of directors attempted to sell their production directly to the eastern refineries, but failed to strike a deal.  They returned home and considering the old reliable principle that, “in union there is strength,” formed a co-op with some other independents forming the Gulf Coast Independent Producers Association, with Ross Sterling as their president.  With an improved condition they decided they could do better with their own refinery.  Humble Oil and Refining was formed on May 17, 1917.  When Ross was asked his opinion on the trademark colors, he replied, “Oh, any old color suits me, just so it’s red, white, and blue.”  Red, white, and blue it was, and still is.

The Anahuac Field

Ross retired from Humble Oil in February 1925, after his 50th birthday.  By that time Humble Oil was one of the largest oil producing companies in the state of Texas.  The Humble Oil Company he had founded was quick to set up camp in the newly established Anahuac field, Ross’ home county.  They chose Archie D. Middleton’s section No. 58 tract, which they had leased previously, as the location of their first drilling operation in the Anahuac field.  The drilling started on Dec. 1, 1934.  The crew experienced any number of setbacks, delays, and problems, all of which were commonplace at that time.  However, on March 16, 1935, A. D. Middleton No. 1 was flowing on its own, initially producing 11 barrels hourly increasing to 33 barrels through a 3/8-inch choke. 

Although Ross retired from Humble Oil in 1925, he did not retire from life.  He became a newspaperman, bought a broadcasting company, became Texas State Highway Commissioner in 1927, and Texas State Governor in 1931.  Of his inauguration day as governor, he said, “My inauguration as governor of Texas at high noon on Jan. 20, 1931, was the supreme honor of my life.”  Ross served as governor from 1931-1933. 

During the great Depression he lost his entire fortune but rather than fall into despondency he rolled up his sleeves and set to work.  He said, “The only way I know to come back is in the oil business.”  He told his wife, Maud, he wished he could start another company.  She replied, “Maybe we can.”   She did the research and put up her last $100 bond to start a new oil company and they were back in the chips again.  They founded the Miramar Company in 1933 and began drilling in Hull, TX.  Within two or three years it was a multi-million-dollar enterprise, and they changed its name to Sterling Oil and Refining Company. 

The farm boy with a fourth-grade education, who followed in the footsteps of his exceptional father, Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Sterling, said, “I have thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of my financial recovery, but most of all I relish my wealth of friends,” a testimony to the life of integrity and moral excellence modeled by his father. 

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