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A History of The Sonneborn Refinery and Sonneborn Family 1874 -1960

by Jeffrey Calta


The current chemical processing plant in Petrolia, PA now known as HF Sinclair Sonneborn can trace its roots back to the mid-19th century when an enterprising man named W.H. Daugherty founded a small refinery in the early 1870’s. The Daugherty refinery prospered in the following years by using local oil field products formerly considered worthless. One of these was called rod wax which accumulated on the pumping rods of local oil wells. This material had to be removed from the pumping rods frequently and large amounts were available. It was discovered that if this wax was mixed with refined oil, it produced a petrolatum that was ideally suited for use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The Daugherty refinery soon began producing petrolatum for domestic and overseas markets. The shipping of finished products was made more cost-effective with the arrival in Petrolia of a standard gauge railroad line in 1899. It replaced the narrow gauge line that was laid down in 1876.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Levi Sonneborn was busy producing a large family in the village of Breidenbach, Germany with his wife, Amalie. Amalie bore Levi nine children. Two of their sons would eventually come to America and help build the Sonneborn petrochemical business into the entity it is today. Their names are Ferdinand and Siegmund Sonneborn

Ferdinand Sonneborn was born in 1874. Ferdinand received his undergraduate training at the University of Munich and later earned his PhD from the University of Basel in Switzerland in petroleum technology and soon acquired expertise in the production of mineral oils. Siegmund was born in 1872 and followed his cousin Henry Sonneborn to Baltimore and graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1893. Siegmund then joined Henry’s successful clothing manufacturing business in Baltimore.

Ferdinand immigrated to the United States in 1903 and immediately began to plan the future of L. Sonneborn & Sons. (L was added to honor their father Levi). Siegmund had already purchased an oil compounding plant in Baltimore but Ferdinand had larger business plans. He wanted to produce petrolatum and white mineral oils as he had done in Germany. They became interested in the Daugherty Refinery in Petrolia and soon joined up with C.R. Daugherty, son of founder W.H. Daugherty. C.R. was impressed with Ferdinand’s vision and product ideas and sold a major portion of the business to L. Sonneborn & Sons in 1903. C.R was retained as plant manager of the Petrolia works. Laboratory research and product development were practically unknown to American refiners but were considered essential by German refiners. After WW1, Ferdinand offered employment to Dr. Ferdinand Breth, a petroleum engineer who gained a reputation in Europe as an important innovator in petroleum technology. Dr. Breth established the first (although primitive) laboratory at Petrolia in 1920.

Part two next: The Sonneborn business continues to grow after World War be published next week.

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