Abercrombie, James Smither (1891–1975)

By: David Littlefield

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: August 17, 2016

James (Jim or Mr. Jim) Smither Abercrombie, oilman, Houston civic leader, and philanthropist, was born in Huntsville, Texas, on July 7, 1891, the fourth of thirteen children of James Buford and Evelina (Wood) Abercrombie, Jr. He spent his childhood in Huntsville, where he attended grammar school. In 1900 his family was forced to move because of harsh winters and boll weevil infestations of the local cotton crops. They moved to Esperanza and then to Richmond, where J. B. Abercrombie worked on the Harlem Prison Farm (see JESTER STATE PRISON FARM), a branch of the state prison system. Jim enrolled in school and got a job jerking sodas at Cranston's Drug Store. After he had attended three years of school and held many odd jobs to help make money for his family, they moved to the outskirts of Houston and started a dairy farm around the time of his fifteenth birthday. They then moved into the Fourth Ward, Houston. Abercrombie worked for the family's dairy business until he was over seventeen. He and a brother went to look for work in the Houston oil business, where they would make enough money to hire extra manpower to work at the dairy. In 1909 Jim's cousin, Charles Abercrombie, hired him to work as a roustabout-an unskilled deckhand on a drilling rig-for the Goose Creek Production Company. By 1910 Jim had become a driller for Goose Creek. When he was in his early twenties, Crown Petroleum hired him as the field superintendent for some of its wells, and while working for Crown he was the first to use salt water to put out a derrick fire, a discovery he made because there was no fresh water available. In 1918 he used his savings and a loan to buy a used drilling rig to drill on his own in the Burkburnett oilfield, north of Wichita Falls. At the same time, he continued as a superintendent at Crown. He had several wells at Burkburnett by 1920, and soon left Crown Petroleum to work on his own in South Texas and in the Gulf Coast oilfields. He helped his brother, Bolling, finance the Houston Carbonate Company, which sold carbonic gas to soda fountains, creameries, and bottlers. On July 9, 1920, he bought, with Harry Cameron, the Cameron-Davant Company (see CAMERON IRON WORKS, HOUSTON), a business that sold oil-drilling supplies and parts for rigs and wells. Jim Abercrombie became the unsalaried president of Cameron Iron Works, and before his thirtieth birthday he was the president of the expanding James S. Abercrombie Company, an independent drilling operation with five rigs.

In late 1921 the Monarch Oil and Refining Company gave Cameron Iron Works a contract to find a way to control the increasing gas pressure in deep wells. Repeated attempts to solve this growing problem, found in many oil wells around the world, failed. But through Abercrombie's persistence, he and Harry Cameron developed the Type MO blowout preventer, which, after additional refinements by Cameron, led to a patent for its solution to the high gas pressure. After this invention, sales by Cameron Iron Works rose to $67,000 in 1925 and subsequently to six-figure levels. The company grew increasingly successful as additional patented inventions, such as a casing-cutter and various joints and clamps, followed. Also, in 1924 the J. S. Abercrombie Company drilled several wells at Lake Charles, Louisiana-where Abercrombie met his future wife, Lillie Frank-for Socony-Vacuum, an early venture of John D. Rockefeller. Abercrombie and Lillie Frank were married on May 6, 1925; the couple had one daughter.

Between 1924 and 1929 Abercrombie traveled internationally to solve oilfield problems. In 1929, with Dan Harrison, he formed Harrison and Abercrombie, which invested and drilled in many oilfields in Texas and Louisiana, especially the Old Ocean field in Brazoria County. The Great Depression hit Cameron Iron Works hard: sales dropped from $479,000 in 1930 to $87,000 in 1932. In 1939, however, Cameron Iron Works developed a list of wartime products that it could produce for the United States military to use in World War II. The military eventually moved Cameron Iron Works up from subcontractor status to direct supplier. By 1941 the company had a contract to build K-guns and arbor bombs; this led to a 1942 contract to build .50-caliber gun barrels. Improved techniques developed by Cameron engineers drastically cut production time for rifling and machining the barrels. Cameron Iron Works also built the Tiny Tim rockets that were used in beach invasions by the navy. In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Harrison and Abercrombie to build an aviation gas refinery at the Old Ocean oilfield; the refinery was completed by 1943. Around this time Harrison sold his share in Harrison and Abercrombie to the Magnolia Petroleum Company, which had Abercrombie administer its newly purchased share. Abercrombie sold the James S. Abercrombie Company and his part of Old Ocean to Stanolind of Indiana for $54 million on May 23, 1946. By November of that year, however, he had formed J. S. Abercrombie Interests, Incorporated.

Also in 1946 Abercrombie, always a man interested in cattle and ranches, bought a ranch on the Guadalupe River just a few miles east of Gonzales. Its fertile lowlands were a perfect place to invest money in agriculture and animal husbandry. This ranching operation built a feed factory for ranch animals. In 1959 Abercrombie Interests was reorganized into the J. S. Abercrombie Mineral Company, which drilled wells in Texas, Louisiana, and theneutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Also, Cameron Iron Works continued to prosper, and by 1960 had some 2,000 employees and sales topping $40 million.

On March 10, 1950, Abercrombie and several other prominent Houston citizens chartered the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston to treat sick and critically ill children. Abercrombie, the first to donate money to this project, gave $1 million of the $2.5 million donated to cover construction costs. He requested that absolutely no restrictions be made on which sick children could be admitted. He also donated all proceeds from the Pin Oak Horse Show to the hospital. Then in 1968 the James S. Abercrombie Foundation was established as a trust to hold gifts and grants primarily for the Texas Children's Hospital and for the Texas Heart Institute of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. While living in Houston, Abercrombie joined many clubs and organizations, among them the Masons, the Old Colony Club, the Houston Yacht Club, the River Oaks Country Club, and the Houston Club. He died in Houston on January 7, 1975, and was buried at Glenwood Cemetery there.

Marcellus E. Foster and Alfred Jones, eds., South and Southeast Texas (n.p.: Jas. O. Jones, 1928). Patrick J. Nicholson, Mr. Jim: The Biography of James Smither Abercrombie (Houston: Gulf, 1983). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Clarence R. Wharton, ed., Texas under Many Flags (5 vols., Chicago: American Historical Society, 1930).

  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Business
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Littlefield, “Abercrombie, James Smither,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/abercrombie-james-smither.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

November 1, 1994
August 17, 2016

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: