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May 19, 2012

Recalling the Hindenburg, John D. Rockefeller in May 1937

A young person of 75 years ago may still recall where they were or what they were doing in the month of May, as two big news events took place. They were the Hindenburg disaster and the death of billionaire John D. Rockefeller.

There were some local connections with both news items.

Dr. and Mrs. S.B. Smith of Delhi were in Lakehurst, N.J., on Thursday, May 6, 1937, when the world's largest dirigible was ripped apart by an explosion and fell on a naval landing field in a flaming wreck. Of the 97 people on board, there were 35 fatalities.

"It was like a burst of volcanic flame, or a ball of cotton suddenly igniting," Dr. Smith described to The Oneonta Star upon return to Delhi the next day.

The Smiths were among the crowd at the landing field, which was described as having happy and jovial spectators, as the huge ship sailed majestically toward its mooring mast. It soon turned into a screaming, hysterical mass of humanity.

Dr. Smith had a camera and had snapped a few shots as the Hindenburg sailed over the field, and two more after it hit the ground.

The Smiths had been in New York the day before for a meeting of the New York State Dental Society.

A movie camera had been rolling as the disaster unfolded. By Monday, May 10, people were able to see it for themselves.

It played as part of the movie offering that evening at Smalley's Theatre in Cooperstown. The feature attraction was much more cheerful, as Bing Crosby starred in "Waikiki Wedding."


Later that month, the town of Richford in Tioga County got some national recognition upon the death of John D. Rockefeller, on Sunday, May 23, at age 97.

Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839, at the farmhouse of his father, William Avery Rockefeller.

A historic marker stands today on the site, where the foundation of the farmhouse stood and is still visible, about two miles north of state Route 79, just off Michigan Hill Road and Rockefeller Road, as one enters the Michigan Hill State Forest.

Farming wasn't especially good in this area, so the family moved to Moravia when John D. was 8, and then to Owego, where he and his brother William attended the Owego Academy for two years.

The Rockefeller family then went west and ended up in Cleveland, Ohio.

At age 16, John D. began with nothing and was paid $50 for his first three months' work as an assistant bookkeeper in a produce commission warehouse on the Cleveland lakefront.

After several business deals, Rockefeller and a business partner, Samuel Andrews, organized the Rockefeller & Andrews oil firm in 1865, later to become the Standard Oil Co. in 1870.

For the first half of his life, Rockefeller amassed an estimated $2 billion, and in the second half he gave it away, "to promote the welfare of mankind in all parts of the world."

Rockefeller was no stranger to Richford in his advanced years, as he was reported to "motor up there and visit his boyhood haunts," from his estate at Pocantico Hills in Tarrytown.

The annual journey to Tioga County in 1922 included a side visit to Cooperstown.

The Freeman's Journal of June 21 told that Rockefeller and a family entourage arrived at the New Fenimore Hotel on a Wednesday afternoon "in four Pierce Arrow cars and a Dodge truck for the baggage." The hotel is The Inn at Cooperstown today.

The article's writer strived to get a glimpse of Rockefeller and did so, just after dinner that night. "The next morning he had a kindly greeting and a bright new ten-cent piece for every body he met, including the members of his own party, this being, it is said, a daily habit of his."

"In this fleeting glimpse of John D. Rockefeller, he impressed us as being a most fine type of old gentleman, who having passed the long voyage of business life and entered the harbor beholds the glorious sunset, which finds a response in acts of kindness and charity toward his fellowmen."

On Monday: An act of kindness to help the hungry in Oneonta.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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