Wheeling Hall of Fame: Ralph Reed Spears
Business, Industry and Professions
A little Native American doll among the belongings of Jessie Ferguson Spears supplied the inspiration for the name that made her husband, Ralph Reed Spears, famous for establishing a consumer-accepted jobber brand in the oil industry.
A true entrepreneur, Spears gained national recognition while building his oil distribution empire in South Wheeling. He made his greatest impact in the 1920s with the formation of the Fleet-Wing marketing vehicle for his oil jobbing firm, Spears & Riddle Co. In the early days of the oil industry, most jobbers - middlemen who buy goods in quantity and then sell them to dealers sold gasoline as an unbranded commodity. Feeling the competition from the larger companies' advertised brands of gasoline, Spears & Riddle Co. decided to give its fuel a brand name and advertise it. The words Fleet-Wing were written' on the bottom of his wife's knickknack doll and the Spearses thought that was "a beautiful name for something fast," one of their grandsons shared decades later, explaining how the name Fleet-Wing was selected for the first jobber brand of oil products. Service stations all over the Midwest and East operated under the Fleet-Wing banner in its heyday. Very soon after it was established by Spears, Fleet-W ing scooped the entire petroleum industry by pioneering the sale of Ethyl gasoline. Spears was a friend of many of the General Motors associates who were experimenting with anti-knock additives and he assisted them in their experiments. When tetraethyl lead was perfected, he got his reward. Early in 1923, General Motors granted Spears & Riddle the first permission to market the fluid, and when the Ethyl Corp. was organized, Spears & Riddle got the No. 1 Ethyl license. The Spears firm had no refinery, but blended Ethyl fluid into the gasoline it bought from refiners. At one point, the company was marketing 600 to 700 rail cars of gasoline per month, principally to jobbers, with only the tetraethyl lead franchise and a name and without having a refinery or plant of any kind.
Expanding sales kept Spears & Riddle searching for additional gasoline supplies, leading R. R. Spears to Standard Oil of Ohio's offices in Cleveland in 1928. The end result of this contact was that Sohio bought the Fleet-Wing brand name from Spears & Riddle the next year and started Fleet-Wing Corp., the first subsidiary organized by Sohio. This allowed Sohio to continue selling to jobbers, but to give them a brand name product, as they wanted, that still was separate from the Sohio brand.
Spears was born at Wheeling on July 15, 1859; resided in Wheeling from 1910 to 1943; and operated a business at Wheeling from 1888 until 1934. He died on Sept. 20, 1943.
His professional experience included approximately 60 years of manufacturing, marketing, executive and engineering ability. From 1880 to 1887, Spears mastered the manufacture of axles, skills he learned from his father, who was a pioneer iron founder. He organized a stock company and had the Spears Axle Co. works constructed on the corner of Main, Water and 27th streets starting in the 1880s. He also patented a number of machines.
Ralph Reed and Jessie Spears married in 1884 and had five children, including a son who died in infancy. Spears lived the early part of his life as a resident of Marshall County but spent much of his time at the family business in Wheeling. He was educated in local public schools until he reached age 13. Three of his grandchildren are residents of Wheeling.