Biography of John Henry Kirby (from Year Book for Texas, 1903)

Source: Raines, Cadwell Walton. Year Book for Texas. Vol. II. Austin, Tex: Gammel-Statesman Pub. Co, 1903.

  John Henry Kirby  
  John Henry Kirby.  

The past is the reason for the present and prophet for the future. The romance, the chivalry, the suffering, the toil, the great accomplishments, the failures, and all the complex incidents of former days that constitute the inspiring and monitory substance of Texas history live now only upon the printed page, in musty archives, in the memories of a few aged persons, and in results.

To those who have gone before the State is indebted for its system of laws, and the inception of its expanding institutions, and the unobstructed field for further progress that lies out before it; but, by far their greatest bequest has been their sons — the native-born Texans who are now rapidly assuming the parts of principal actors in the deepening and unfolding drama of Texas progress.

While perhaps not far distant, the time has not yet arrived for Texas-born United States senators; but one ex-governor of Texas, several members of the United States House of Representatives, State Legislature, higher courts, and University of Texas and other college faculties, and many of the leading figures in business circles are native to the soil.

It may be truthfully said that of the men of prominence born in Texas, the one most widely known and whose labors promise the greatest material good to the State, is the able lawyer and financier who has been selected as the subject of this memoir.

John H. Kirby was born in Tyler county, Texas, November 16, I860; the son of John Thomas Kirby and Mrs. Sarah (Payne) Kirby, who moved to Texas from Mississippi in 1850 and now live on the old homestead (2000 acres of land) near Chester. His parents were married at Monticello, Miss., in 1841, and celebrated the sixty-first anniversary of that event December 18, 1902. His father, born in Kentucky, February 4, 1821, was sheriff of Tyler county, Texas, in 1860-1, served gallantly as a Confederate soldier during the war between the States, and then resumed farming, which he has subsequently followed. His mother is a daughter of the late Nelson Payne, of Copiah county, Mississippi.

The Kirby family is of English descent. Three brothers of the name came to America before the revolution of 1775-83, and served in the Continental army. After the close of the war for independence, one of the number, Edmund Kirby, moved to Virginia, there married Mary Shepherd, and then moved with his wife to Stokes county, North Carolina, where James Kirby was born. James Kirby married Elizabeth Longino, daughter of John Thomas Longino, an Italian nobleman who was banished from Italy in 1773. To them was born John Thomas Kirby, father of John H. Kirby. The Longinos have contributed a number of distinguished men to the country, among others, Hon. Houston Longino, the present governor of Mississippi.

Mr. Kirby was educated in the common schools of Tyler county, the high school of that county at Woodville, and the Southwestern University at Georgetown, earning the money to pay his tuition and other expenses.

He was united in marriage to Miss Lelia Stewart, daughter of the late John W. Stewart, at Woodville, in 1883, and has one child, a daughter, Miss Bessie May, now seventeen years of age.

It is a common experience that when hardships are long past, we derive pleasure instead of pain from viewing them in perspective — the inconvenience or suffering they caused no longer harasses, and the humorous side, which at the time was not evident, becomes apparent; witness the fireside tales of pioneers, soldiers, seamen, and men now wealthy, but who were once poor. This is true in Mr. Kirby's case as in that of others. He recalls with much zest the fact that when he married he did not have enough money to commence housekeeping, and that he obtained it by serving as a committee clerk in the Eighteenth Legislature, and working in the office of the county clerk of Tyler county. While so engaged he read law in the office of Hon. S. B. Cooper, at Woodville, and was admitted to the bar in 1885. He secured law business from the beginning and was soon in independent circumstances, and in 1896 was compelled to retire from practice to attend to the large industrial interests of which he had become the directing head.

He has been a delegate to every State Democratic convention held since 1882, and has taken an active interest in public affairs, not as an office-seeker, but to aid in securing party success and its concomitant — good government.

In every great undertaking having for its object the upbuilding of Texas and the Southwest, his services have been demanded in a leading capacity and freely given.

At this writing he is president of the Trans-Mississippi Commercial Congress and President of the Texas World's Fair Commission.

He became a Master Mason in 1881, a Royal Arch Mason in 1882, a Knight Templar in 1888, a Scottish Rite 32d Degree Mason in 1890, a Knight of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Mystic Shrine in 1902, a member of the Knights of Pythias fraternity in 1888, and a member of the Benevolent Order of Elks in 1889.

Religiously, he is of the Episcopal persuasion.

He is tall, and somewhat athletically built, his features regular, his eyes blue, bright, clear and steady; his manner decided, but courteous and kindly, and his bearing and conversation, while unaffected, such as would mark him in any society as a man of distinction and a gentleman — defining the latter term to mean one who, in those respects, and in adherence to the principles of honor, may have equals, but can have no superior.

Speaking of him the "American Lumberman", the great trade journal published at Chicago, says: "Shortly after beginning the practice of law Dame Fortune knocked at his door and was bidden to enter.

Some Boston parties were in trouble about a land deal and needed the services of an attorney to settle the matter. The same energetic traits that had made an attorney of the farmer boy won this important case for him. They won far more. The confidence of the Eastern capitalists was gained and resulted in the formation of the Texas and Louisiana Land and Lumber Company. This was in 1886. From this time until the present Mr. Kirby's career has been signalized by the formation of company after company for the exploitation of the rich resources of eastern Texas. The first lumber company organized was for the purpose of manufacturing lumber and purchasing timber lands. This was followed by the launching of the Texas Pine Lands Association, of which corporation he became general manager.

"His interests became so great that in 1890, in order to be able to see people and to be seen by them, he moved to Houston, where he has resided ever since. He was then thirty years of age and was at the head of two of the largest timber companies in Texas.

"The difficulties and loss caused by the logging methods then in operation, as well as the immense quantities of timber that were inaccessible on account of lack of transportation facilities, next attracted his attention. In 1893 he conceived and carried to successful termination the building of the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City Railway, which penetrated the heart of the eastern Texas pine district. The force of his character is shown by this accomplishment. The panic of the succeeding years carried many of the strongest institutions in the country to the wall, but the road was built. How? is a question that few understand.

Even those engaged with him in the enterprise scarcely know how the money for carrying out the plans was obtained. The road, when sold to the Santa Fe system, ran north from Beaumont a distance of about seventy-five miles, and right of way had been secured for its completion to San Augustine and thence to Center, fifty miles further to the north. The road is today a part of the Santa Fe system and is a substantial dividend payer.

"It was after disposing of the railroad that the great scheme of Eastern Texas was presented to his mind. This embodied nothing less than the purchase of the various tracts of timber lands then on the market in East Texas. He had confidence in his plans, and inspired a confidence in the minds of his associates which has since been amply justified by results. The timber lands purchased during the panicky times of 1893-96 are today worth many times the prices paid for them.

"Capitalists were tired of holding as an investment tracts of timber that were apparently depreciating in value every day. It was Mr. Kirby's chance to buy timber and get it at his own figure. He continued to purchase as long as there was any offered for sale, regardless of the expressions of others that he would go to smash with the timber which had proven a burden to former owners. The plans for uniting his vast holdings were then in process of formation. He would form a lumber company able to take contracts for bills of timber and deliver them to any part of the world, a company that would be able to fill any order, regardless of its magnitude.

"His plans, together with the resources he was willing to put up as an expression of his faith in them, were laid before critical Eastern capitalists, and the result was the formation of a $10,000,000 lumber company. Ready cash was needed in large quantities, but was forthcoming, and has been ever since when necessary. The company now owns and operates the mills of what were previously fourteen companies, viz, The Reliance Lumber Company, the Texas Tram and Lumber Company, the Beaumont Lumber Company, all of Beaumont; the Bancroft Lumber Company, of Orange, Texas; Texas Pine Lands Association, of Silsbee, Texas; Yellow Pine Tie and Timber Company, of Lillard, Texas; Cow Creek Tram Company, of Call, Texas; Kirby Lumber Company, of Kirbyville, Texas; Roganville Lumber Company, of Roganville, Texas; J. F. Keith Company, of Sharon, Texas; Village Mills Lumber Company, of Village, Texas; Southwestern Lumber Company, of Mobile, Texas"; Doucette & Chapman Mills, of Woodville, Texas, and the T. H. Hackney Lumber Company, of Menard, Texas."

He was the leading spirit in the formation of the Houston Oil Company, which owns the lands and timber which have been contracted for by the Kirby Lumber Company. This concern has been capitalized at $30,000,000," and has assets to its credit of nearly $50,000,000, mostly in yellow pine stumpage, though owning and controlling some of the best oil lands and oil interests in Texas. The main body of the company's holdings lies in the famous Neches valley, celebrated for its fine timber lands and good oil prospects.

Timber and oil lands are owned in fee simple in Jefferson, Liberty, Hardin, Tyler, Newton, Jasper, Sabine, Polk, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Aransas, and a number of other counties. After the formation of the company it entered into a stumpage contract with John H. Kirby for the sale to him of 8,000,000,000 feet of longleaf yellow pine timber. Under this contract a tree unless capable of producing a log twelve inches in diameter at the small end shall not be cut. This contract with Mr. Kirby as an individual was assigned, with the consent of the Houston Oil Company, to the Kirby Lumber Company, the latter obligating itself to be bound by the same restrictions imposed upon the original vendee."

The mills now owned by the Kirby Lumber Company are capable of producing about 350.000,000 feet of merchantable lumber each year.

The construction of additional mills is contemplated, until a capacity of 500,000,000 feet annually is reached. Under the scientific forestry methods adopted, the forests owned by this company will increase rather than diminish in value as the years go by.

The affairs of the Kirby Lumber Company are directed by its general officers from its home in Houston. When the company was launched the offices occupied the second floor of the Planters and Mechanics Bank on Main Street, but these quarters soon became too small, and shortly afterwards the sales and accounting departments were given an entire floor on Franklin Street. The two offices are connected by a rear passage, which practically puts all the offices on one floor, as the distance traversed by the passage-way is short. Many of the heads of departments retain their private quarters in the bank building, and there also is located the main general office of the Houston Oil Company. In every enterprise with which Mr. Kirby has been connected, he has accomplished what was expected of him and earned the highest eulogiums from his friends and co-workers. He was receiver of the Houston Electric Railway, and with skill and judgment put that company's affairs into splendid shape. He is at the head of the Southwestern Oil Company, a producer, refiner and distributor of oil, with headquarters in Houston and branches in all the principal cities of Texas; and, in addition, lie has various other interests, not the least of which are in connection with recently located Texas oil fields. Among positions held by him, he is president of the Kirby Lumber Company, president of the Planters and Mechanics National Bank of Houston, president of the Southwestern Oil Company, and until recently president of the First National Bank of Austin.

The first National Bank of Austin closed its doors August 4, 1901, with several hundred thousand dollars of the State's money in its vaults. This money came there under the operation of a system of collecting drafts sent to the State treasury that had been in vogue for more than twenty years and the danger attending which no one suspected until this denouement. Those owning an interest in the institution expressed a willingness to do all in their power to protect the collections made for the State and the deposits of private individuals. The affairs of the bank, however, were in a bad and much tangled condition — hopeless, unless some man of great financial genius, broad patriotism, devoted and unselfish attachment to the Democratic party, and large means could be found to straighten them.

The Governor and the Legislature (then in session) turned at once to Mr. Kirby as the man. They were not disappointed in his ability, love for the State, or party fealty. Surveying the situation, his brain at once found a solution of the difficulties. In accordance with the plan he suggested, the bank was reopened under an arrangement submitted in a message by Governor Savers and authorized by the Legislature, and in a few months paid in installments all of the money due the State, and shortly thereafter had in its vaults cash to the credit and subject to sight checks of all depositors, to the full amount due them.

To accomplish this Mr. Kirby was made president of the bank.

The good work was later continued by him. He was determined to stop at nothing short of putting the affairs of the bank in a thoroughly healthy condition, establishing the most conservative and safest methods of management, restoring public confidence in it, and building up a large, paying and constantly growing business for it.

These objects attained, he resigned the presidency May 27, 1903, and Mr. J. L. Hume was elected to succeed him. At the same time Mr. A. S. Vandervoort resigned the position of cashier and Mr. Geo. L. Hume was elected in his stead.

The "Austin Statesman" of May 28th contained the following:

To a reporter of The Statesman, who saw Mr. Kirby at the Driskill last night, he said:

"It is true that I have sold a part of my stock in the bank. I did so because it is not at all convenient for me to give personal attention to the management, and I have confidence that the Messrs. Hume will achieve flattering success in its administration. The institution is thoroughly sound and is growing rapidly. I still retain quite a large interest in the bank, and it was not so much to realize upon my holdings as it was to relieve myself of the responsibility of the management that I have disposed of a part of my shares. Having accomplished my primary purpose, viz., the protection of the State treasury by assuming control of this bank, and having placed it, through the favor of the commercial community, on a thrifty basis, there is no reason why I should remain longer in control of its current business. The bank is a winner, and I have confidence in its future.

"Mr. A. S. Vandervoort was seen at the bank, and in reply to The Statesman's inquiries, said the negotiations had been under way but a short time.

"The truth is", he said, "Mr. Kirby has large interests all over Texas. He believes in his State. He opened this bank more from motives of patriotism, and to aid certain of his friends, than to make money for himself. The venture, however, like everything else he undertakes, has been entirely successful. I came here at his instance. My reception by the people of Austin has been most gratifying. I expect to remain here for some time looking after Mr. Kirby's investments and may stay permanently. I shall continue as a director, and as a member of the finance committee, unless my duties take me elsewhere. * * *

"Upon his return from New York in the fall of 1901, after having financed the Kirby Lumber Company, Mr. Kirby was the recipient of a monster demonstration, the counterpart of which has never been given to Another Texan. Representative citizens of the State, as well as the city of Houston, assembled to do honor to the man and the occasion. On the evening of November 12, 1901, there were gathered in the parlors of the Rice Hotel at Houston, men not only from all parts of Texas, but from the leading cities of the Union. Among the speakers was Governor Joseph D. Sayers.

The demonstration came as a complete surprise to Mr. Kirby, and will linger long in the memory of all present.

He has not amassed his fortune from the wreck of others. His is a creative genius, not a destroying power. He has enriched, not impoverished, those with whom he has been associated.

It has been said that generations succeed one another like shadows on the grass? — that, compared with the endlessness of time, they are as fleeting as moisture upon a mirror; but, it is well to remember that these statements are only partially true — true as to rapidity of succession and brevity of duration, but false as to want of substantiality and as to failure to leave behind anything of a permanent nature, and false, also, in the lesson they are intended to inculcate, viz., the uselessness and want of value of effort.

Survey the world as it is, contrast it with the period of the prehistoric cave-dwellers, and realize the immensity of what has been accomplished during the interval as the race has struggled bravely upward through the ages, mounting to higher planes, and these facts are apparent.

The idle and aimless dreamer, the world-weary cynic, the selfish plodder, the person of little faith, and the -heir of wealth contenting himself with being a mere votary of pleasure have had no part in bringing to pass by steady accretion, the results that are everywhere apparent.

Not melancholy, soliloquizing Hamlets, but stout-hearted Fortinbras (capable men of action, troubled with no ghostly visions) are those who have pushed forward the lines of human advancement from one coign of vantage to another, until the race has at last deployed into the light of the twentieth century, buoyant, virile, and intrepid, conquering and to conquer.

Blessed as this generation is, its responsibilities are correspondingly great. It has much to do. It has great need of men such as John H. Kirby, and should properly value them, for upon their shoulders have fallen the mantles of the builders and valiant ones of old.

Texas proudly acknowledges him as a favorite son.

Text and images were digitized and proofread from the original source documents by Murry Hammond. Contact Murry for all corrections, additions, and contributions of new material.