What is the one common denominator among the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Metroparks, oil refineries, sandstone quarries, benevolent funds and the city of Cleveland? If you guessed John Huntington, congratulations! I would like to introduce you to a man who started from humble beginnings, but rose to prominence and touched thousands while he was living and millions more since his passing in 1893.
If you’re a Westsider, you’re certainly aware of Huntington Beach and Cleveland Metroparks - Huntington Reservation. Like several of Cleveland Metroparks reservations, which were established from summer estates from “well to do” businessmen of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Huntington’s 99-acre lakeside property became a reservation in 1925.
Huntington Tower at Huntington Reservation - water storage
Who was this man and what was his legacy? John Huntington was the son of a mathematics professor who taught at and founded Trinity College in Preston, England. At the age of 22 with his young bride, John moved to Cleveland in 1854 where he worked for a slate roofing company and eventually started his own roofing business. His timing was perfect, because Cleveland was prospering in the steel industry and growing in stature because of the canal and soon a booming railway system. Contracting with prominent people in the Cleveland area, he soon became well respected and trusted.
With his business aptitude and inquisitive mind, John became interested in newly discovered oil reserves in Pennsylvania in 1859. He began searching for ways to refine crude oil, making furnaces and patent machines to manufacture oil barrels. John and his oil refining partners became the leading oil refining producer in the Cleveland area with 3,300 barrels a day. At 30 years old, John became a very wealthy man.
Wooden oil barrels - courtesy of CSU, Michael Schwartz Special Collections
His success in oil refinery and related inventions soon drew the attention of John D. Rockefeller. Eventually, Rockefeller consolidated with Huntington and his partners Clark and Payne along with other oil firms to form Standard Oil Company. Eventually, Huntington sold his interest and received 500 shares in Standard Oil in 1870.
His business capital eventually led John to purchase a fleet of Great Lakes vessels and also become the vice president of Cleveland Stone Company.
In the years of John Huntington’s oil refinery ventures, he was elected to Cleveland City Council twice to serve two terms from 1862 to 1874. His contributions to the growing city were substantial. He was determined to see this country town turned into a city vibrant with opportunity. He predicted that Cleveland would grow to a populations of 200,000 in 25 years. Despite the mocking naysayers, Huntington’s predictions came true with 230,000 people residing in the Cleveland area. His dream was to pave streets, build docks and bridges, light streets, create a sewage system, reorganize a water works system and provide parks (Lake View Park where the Brown’s Stadium now stands) throughout the region. He succeeded on all accounts, plus more. He was influential in replacing the old pump fire engines with steam fire engines.
His contributions were many, but some say his greatest gifts were in his philanthropic activities. While still living, he established two trust funds: The Huntington Benevolent Fund (Charities) and the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust. These funds began to bless the residents of Greater Cleveland after his death in 1893. His estate was worth $1,500,000 but with proper investing his estate grew to $25,000,000.
Out of these funds came the Cleveland Museum of Art. Seven tenths of the actual museum structure was built from Huntington’s funds in 1916.
Cleveland Museum of Art - courtesy of CSU, Michael Schwartz Special Collections
The John Huntington Polytechnic Institute was established as an industrial technical school to provide immigrants a trade. No one graduated with a cap or gown and it didn’t offer any degrees. “We’re here to help the fellow on the job get an education.” It was absolutely free to the adult students as a night school. Architectural courses, mechanical drawing, landscape design, heating systems and air conditioning, interior design, as well as technical writing, basic electricity, English, technical writing and much more were offered. It was estimated that 2000 students annually were enrolled in the institute from 1918 – 1953.
Memorial to John Huntington at Cleveland Museum of Art
John’s charitable funds supported 19 different charities including hospitals, children’s hospitals, families in distress, elderly, disabled, widows and orphans. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas he sent food to 100 poor families, because he remembered when he arrived in Cleveland he was “poor and without friends.”
This not so uncommon story from rags to riches still impresses me as I visit Huntington Reservation to lead a bicycle trip, a hike or a bus tour. The stories that come from the land that are now Cleveland Metroparks properties are simply amazing. This once country estate of John Huntington means a great deal to me, knowing that he generously gave back to all walks of life. I am sure he would be pleased to know that thousands and maybe millions have enjoyed his country estate and that Cleveland Metroparks proudly keeps it clean and open for everyone to enjoy.