Friday, May 24, 2024

Centurions: Oil and water

By Bill Thompson

Franklin Pierce White’s first venture in the energy business involved using a sailboat to transport 55-gallon drums of kerosene from the dock at Wilmington to his store in Shallotte. It was at the turn of the 20th century, Shallotte had about 100 residents and roads were rare, making it a challenge to keep White’s country store well stocked. Even round trips by sailboat could take a week as White traveled down the Shallotte River at low tide, crossed the Cape Fear into Wilmington, then returned at high tide. He would pour kerosene into a square, 50-gallon tank at the store, then pump it, one gallon at a time, into containers for his customers.

F.P. White’s great-grandsons, Robby and Kyle White, now operate R.D. White & Sons, which still supplies heating oil to customers across southeastern North Carolina. Believed to be the oldest continuously operated business in Brunswick County, their company is now located next to a renovated movie theater, just down the street from the original store site. A fifth generation of Whites works at the company.

Sitting in the store office with Robby, who is president, and Kyle, who is vice president, we look  at handwritten names of early customers who paid pennies for some items and 25 cents an hour for labor. By 1935, the price of kerosene had risen to $3.48 for 30 gallons.

As the company grew, it closed the general store and concentrated on oil distribution. In 1925, the family business became R.D. White & Sons, named after F.P’s son, Rufus Decatur White. Along the way, the Whites became Esso distributors (now Exxon) and provided gasoline and fuel oil, motor oil and lubricants. Tobacco farmers were important clients. (The company no longer is an Exxon affiliate.)

“We had regular delivery routes during tobacco season. We would deliver directly to the tobacco barns that were way down roads that ranged from sandy to muddy,” says Kyle. “Sometimes we’d have to make emergency deliveries to barns where the curer had run out of fuel and the tobacco was still hanging in the barn.”

In the late 1960s, the company started selling propane, which continues to be a major part of the business. It’s likely F.P. White wouldn’t recognize the area anymore: Shallotte, which is about 40 miles from both Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, S.C., now has a population of about 3,700. Appealing to retirees and beach lovers, Brunswick County is among the 50 fastest-growing U.S. counties, Census Bureau data shows.

Still, some of the same names pop up on the company’s computer records today as in the early 1900s: Hewetts, Longs, Mintzes and Gores. They are not only customers, but friends, according to the Whites.

R.D. White now employs 30 people and has a fleet of 10 trucks, including a tanker, to distribute propane and natural gas — but not a single sailboat.

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