Johnson Oil Refining Company Chicago, Illinois

My father and I have volunteered to contribute to the “company of the month” for Johnson Oil Refining Company out of Chicago Illinois. We do not pretend to be experts on the company, but have been serious collectors since 1997. Since this is the only brand we collect, all of our time is spent researching history and searching for new and unique items to add to our collection. We both have a love for tri-five Chevrolets and we wanted to experience the Carlisle, Pennsylvania swap meet. In the spring of ‘97, as a graduation present from my father, we had a chance to do just that. It was about this time that we thought about adding a sign or gas pump to the garage as a way of showcasing our cars. The rest is history for us.

Our description of the history of Johnson Oil is taken from what we’ve been able to piece together from our study of the collectibles, what we’ve heard from others and is also based on two excellent articles by Wayne Swearingen in PCM and Woody Johnson in CTO, grandson of Homer Johnson, founder of Johnson Oil.

In the Beginning
Horton, the oldest of the 5 brothers involved in the founding and management of the company, followed in his dad’s footsteps by going into the oil business in Warren and Sheffield counties, Pennsylvania. The next youngest son was Homer, who actually founded the Johnson Oil Refining Company. He went to Princeton for a year, thought it was a waste of time and wanted to go into business and join his brother in the oil fields. Younger brothers Ralph, James and Isaac were still “finding themselves” and were initially along for the ride.

In the early1900s, Homer held a job with the Indian Oil Company as the treasurer and ended up in Lawrenceville, Illinois, where he and his brothers began the process of starting up Johnson Oil. In November 1909, at the age of 25, Homer and the brothers opened the doors marketing petroleum products in demand at the time.

The original bulk plant opened in South Chicago Heights, where a building with the “Johnson Oil Refining Company” logo still stands today. They started with one employee, a horse-drawn wagon and the name “Johnson”. As a pretty cool little foot note, the orange and black in the logo came from the colors of Princeton University, the school that Homer attended before his oil venture. The plant was moved in 1910 to Galesburg, Illinois, while they renovated and geared up for the roaring twenties. They came back to Chicago Heights in 1913 and in 1919 opened the first Johnson station there.

Horton was the company’s president from 1911-1912, but passed away in 1912 at the age of 34. Homer, the real driving force behind the company and really the only one capable of running it, moved to Chicago in 1920 to run the company. Before this, he and his family lived in Southern Illinois. We are not sure if he ran the company remotely before then or if someone else called the shots. In 1922, Homer moved the corporate office out of Chicago Heights and into Downtown Chicago. At the same time, a massive fire leveled the Chicago Heights plant. By 1923, they rebuilt that main bulk plant as well as planning for 125 smaller facilities through Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. We have paperwork that stated the company had offices in Detroit, Pittsburgh as well as the main refinery in Cleveland, Oklahoma, at that time.

The Cleveland, Oklahoma refinery generated a few interesting stories for the Johnson Brothers. First off, they had a smaller refinery there that Brother Ralph was running. While in Cleveland, he met and married a lady whose father owned a huge ranch that had vast quantities of oil under it. This proved to be a great benefit later on as this land kept Johnson Oil supplied with crude oil well into the late 1940s. Another interesting piece of history centered around train cars. The company had a fleet of 400 awesome looking tank cars used to transport and advertise Johnson Oil. In 1933, this fleet was the source of a U.S. Supreme Court Case after taxes were imposed on the entire fleet. Johnson prevailed and the tax was imposed on only 64 cars, since logically all of the fleet was never in Oklahoma at any given time.

The company had a couple of interesting transitions in the late twenties, which was considered by many to be the high water mark. Up to this point, the company had grown from $400,000 in assets to $6,000,000. Then tragedy struck. Homer Johnson passed away in his office in March of 1929. This left the leadership up to Isaac. He did an adequate job maintaining the status quo, but because of new competition, and the economy, business started to slow. Status quo wasn’t going to cut it. The secondary brand of “Brilliant Bronze” was established and the company continued to expand into most of the Midwest. We have maps from Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and even Texas.

For most of the thirties the company continued to lose ground to other larger oil companies. Sales were dropping and, after Homer’s death, the company lacked the leadership and marketing drive to compete successfully with the “big guys”.

In the early forties a new direction was initiated. A concerned Johnson employee spoke with Isaac, who was still in charge, about turning all the stations into cut-rate gas outlets. Isaac was convinced and the plan was implemented and it paid off. The company received a “shot in the arm” from much needed new business. It was during this time period that the “save 3 cents per gallon” slogan was born. The company’s product line consisted of Johnson Ethyl, Johnson Winged 70 Gasolene, JO-RE-CO non-leaded gas and Johnson Oils. A similar mix was offered under the Brilliant Bronze, Brilliant Penn and Brilliant Ethyl brands.

World War II wasn’t the best of times for Johnson Oil. Some might say that it was the beginning of the end. The company focused more on marketing the “Brilliant Bronze” name. But once again business started to get stagnant, and the ownership of the company was dispersed throughout the families of the founding brothers. We have a lot of smalls or give-a-ways during this period that we will share thru pictures. The brothers also made the decision to continue paying their own salaries, but stopped paying dividends to the owning families. As you can imagine, this caused battle lines to be drawn.

After the war, dividend payments resumed, but the damage was done and the company was in deep trouble. Marketing was pulled out of the areas not easily supplied by the refineries. Johnson stations only remained in the states of Illinois, Michigan, and Oklahoma. Isaac also passed away during the late forties, giving way to one of the last remaining brothers, James, to steer the ship. He lacked the leadership that Homer exhibited, but listened well to others with good business skills. He presided for a few years until 1950, when the company Secretary, Garnett Lilly took over.

Homer’s immediate family was frustrated with how the company was being managed and wanted to sell the business. Cousins and Uncles were at odds with other family members and didn’t want to sell. You see they all had ulterior motives for the company staying in business. One relative held the bank loans and another profited from the monthly insurance premiums. By 1952, Homer’s family held firm, and convinced everyone that the best thing to do for everyone was to put the company up for sale.

For $6,000,000, Gaseteria Oil Company purchased Johnson Oil Company in 1956. The Illinois and Michigan stations were converted to the Gaseteria or Bonded Brand, and the Oklahoma assets were sold off to Deep Rock. In 1957, Russell Williams, the owner of Gaseteria was killed in a plane crash. This tragic turn of events forced the sell of Gaseteria to Standard’s Oklahoma Oil Company Division where the stations were then branded Oklahoma. In 1960, the stations were finally branded Enco under Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Whew. That does it. What a soap opera. It doesn’t sound like there was ever a dull moment in the road traveled by the Johnson Family. It is interesting to note that the company was never a publicly traded company nor did they ever totally discontinue using the Johnson name until the end in1956. We talk to people, and quite a few think that “Brilliant Bronze Stations” and “Johnson Oil” have nothing to do with one another. This is a misconception. Well, let’s see some pictures. I hope everyone will try to participate. We will post plenty of pictures throughout the month via Bob, Scott and others, but we want to see some things we don’t know about. Needless to say, we are always looking for new and unique items to add to our collection.

Thanks for your time,

Jeff and Neil Johnson

[This message has been edited by JORECO (edited 04-01-2004).]