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A History of the Sonneborn Refinery and Sonneborn Family 1874 -1960 - Part 2

The Sonneborn Business Continues To Grow After World War

By Jeffrey Calta

World War 1 marked a turning point for the Petrolia plant as it became impossible to ship or receive materials from Germany. This gave Sonneborn a virtual monopoly in white oils and petrolatums. Ferdinand moved to New York City and opened a headquarters at 262 Pearl Street. Siegmund remained in Baltimore and became president of Henry Sonneborn’s clothing business but remained an important business partner for L. Sonneborn & Sons.

L. Sonneborn & Sons acquired a second refinery from Lakeside Oil Refining Company near Franklin, PA in 1924. This was to produce lubricating oils for the growing automobile market. The motor oil brand was named Amalie in honor of their mother. The use of Pennsylvania crude as a lubricant soon acquired a very positive reputation and it became a profitable product line for the business. Ferdinand renamed the Franklin refinery as the Franklin Creek Refinery. It was 1 mile west of Franklin along US route 322. The refinery was active until 1970 when a catastrophic fire destroyed the facility. It was never rebuilt.

Siegmund and his wife Camille had a son Rudolf who was born in 1898 in Baltimore, MD. Rudolf was destined to become the successor to the Sonneborn empire and would guide the business into the modern era. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1918. He attended Harvard Graduate School of Business but only completed one year. He began working for L Sonneborn and Sons in 1920. However, before starting his business career, Rudolf would complete a voyage to the land of Palestine which would forever change him and assist in the creation of the state of Israel after World War II.

The Petrolia Refinery added a lube plant in 1931 as the popularity of the Amalie motor oil line soon outstripped the Franklin plant’s capacity. Dr Breth’s research activity soon began producing new products. One of these new products was the discovery of oil soluble petroleum sulfonate in the waste stream from white oil manufacture. This product was found to be of tremendous value to the military as an additive for lubricating oils in military vehicles. As a result, the product now known as Petronate was placed on strict allocation during World War II and is considered one of Sonneborn’s most valuable contributions to the war effort.

The other Sonneborn product in demand during WWII was microcrystalline wax. As the war expanded into the Pacific theater, great quantities of equipment were being stored and required protection from rust and corrosion. A technique was developed using a wax-impregnated paper to protect equipment. Microcrystalline wax was found to be ideal for this purpose and the Petrolia refinery began a 24/7 operation to keep up with demand. By war’s end Petrolia was producing 16% of all microcrystalline wax consumed by the military. Employment rose from a few dozen to over 400.

Rudolf Sonneborn attended a petroleum conference in Europe in 1933 and soon realized the threat of the Nazi regime in Germany. Many of his fellow Jews were being persecuted and after discussions with Recha Freier, wife of a German rabbi, Rudolf used his prestige and wealth to save many Jewish children from Nazi persecution by arranging transport to Palestine. It took some time but eventually 100,000 Jewish children were relocated by 1939. Many of the parents of these children were not as fortunate as they died in various concentration camps in Europe. Rudolf’s experience with the Nazi regime in the pre-war years solidified his resolve to help his fellow Jews attain a permanent homeland after WWII.

Part III will feature from 1933 to 1960 and will be published in next weeks Progress News.

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