Forty-two years ago, on a little farm in Tyler county, in east Texas, there was born to John Thomas Kirby and Sarah (Payne) Kirby a male child, the seventh that had blessed their union. A year or so after the birth of the child, who had been christened John Henry, the family moved to Woodville, which was the county seat of Tyler county, a small village about thirty miles from the place of his nativity. This removal was necessitated by the election of the lad's father to the office of sheriff, which office he continued to fill until the call to arms in 1861. Mr. Kirby resigned his office, moved his family and slaves to a farm in Polk county and cast his fortunes with the south.
The history of the family during the next five years is but a repetition of that of thousands of others. All was sacrificed upon what was considered the altar of personal liberty, and all was lost. At the end of the struggle a man, worn out by weary campaigns, stripped of his property and slaves and all but penniless, returned to his family, who had fared none too well during his absence. A farm was purchased in Tyler county, near Peach Tree village, and the father started to retrieve his fortunes.
John Henry Kirby, then a boy of 6 years, had all the necessary qualifications for a useful American citizen of the future. The war left but a faint impression on his youthful mind, but the bitter days of the reconstruction are still green in his memory. He had three things that augured well for his future: Health, a loving mother and the advantage of having his own way to make in the world.
It is interesting here to note the ancestry of this southern financier. The Kirby family is an old American one of English descent and can trace its progenitors back to three brothers of that name who came to America before the revolutionary war and who were later soldiers in the continental army. After the struggle which ended in the independence of the colonies one of the brothers, Edmund Kirby, moved to Virginia, where he married Mary Shepherd, and later this family located in Stokes county, North Carolina. Here it was that the grandfather of John Henry Kirby—James Kirby—was born.
John Thomas Kirby was the first of the family to move to Texas, going to the Lone Star State from Mississippi in 1850. The name of John comes from both sides of the house. On his father's side Mr. Kirby is a lineal descendant of John Thomas Longino, whose children's children have won such distinction in the south. John Thomas Longino, a distinguished Italian nobleman, was banished from his native country in 1773 for political reasons and came to the western hemisphere after that freedom denied him in his native land. He settled in North Carolina, where he married Mary Ransome, and their daughter, Elizabeth Longino, became the wife of James Kirby. Houston Longino, the present governor of Mississippi, is a member of the family.
THE FORMATIVE PERIOD.
Mr. Kirby's education began at the age of 19. Under his mother's tutelage he had learned to read and write and this taste of the riches of the written field whetted his appetite for greater knowledge. At the age stated his father sent the young man to school for a year. His career dates from that time. After the close of the country school he secured funds for a term at the Southwestern University, at Georgetown, Tex., by teaching and by working in the office of the tax collector at Woodville. His desire for information as to the accomplishments of great men who had preceded him and of those who were making the history of his time grew in proportion as he catered to it.
Books on all subjects were bought and devoured; when he finished with a work he was master of its contents. His desire for literature was so great that he often traded his books for others, and where possible borrowed from those more fortunate than himself. From the mass of knowledge assimilated he deducted one great fundamental truth. The world was made for man; its riches were his; its resources waited but for the master hand to develop and subdue them to his will.
A close analytical survey of Mr. Kirby and his life reveals one primary cause of his great success, not only as a financier, but also as a man. Whatever man has done, that man can do. Confidence, patience and a thorough knowledge of one's weak and strong points are necessary to the successful carrying out of any plan. It is true of minor things and true of great matters. The principle is the same whether applied to teaching a dog tricks or to circling a continent with an iron roadway.
This man, this former farm boy, is today looked upon as the leading southern financier, and is hailed as the Moses of Texas and the southwest who has smitten the stubborn but pregnant rock of Texas resources and opened the way for a period of industrial and commercial development never before equaled in that section. His career furnishes a lesson to the young generation of what applied industry will accomplish, and his success is a striking example of what may he done by any young man in the land who will put into operation the cardinal principles which have brought the subject of this sketch out of the background and backwoods and made him the prominent figure he is.
There never has been a crisis in the world's history but what some man has been found who was large enough and thoroughly capable to handle the question, whether it were social, political or commercial. A big man with a big mission requires a big mind, and this is true whether his mission he war, politics or religion. Big undertakings are only small ones on a larger scale; the same characteristics which go to make a small success are necessary to a great success.
In one particular the life of Mr. Kirby differs widely from that of most of the prominent men of today. It is the rare exception that a man carves out a fortune in his native section. Usually, though why is only one of many queries of the same general nature, the adventurous man goes to some distant country or city to woo the goddess Fortune. The opportunities offered by the resources of a section in which a man is reared are often unseen by the eyes of those to whom they should be most familiar. Mr. Kirby's choice of his field of action stamps him as one of the few who are not dazzled by the glittering promises held out by sections other than his own. He realized the worth of the pineries of east Texas, and by his labor in bringing them to the attention of men able and willing to develop the lands he gained a fortunate not only for himself but for many of his associates.
EARLIER STRUGGLES AND PROGRESS.
Early association turned his attention to the law, and after a thorough course in a school in which he was both master and pupil he passed the required examination. His studies were prosecuted during leisure moments, though it was while serving as clerk in the Texas legislature in 1882, 1883 and 1884 that the realms of legal lore were most thoroughly explored. He then had access to the law library of Hon. S. Bronson Cooper, at that time state senator, but who during the past few years has been the member of congress for the second congressional district of Texas. The use made of his opportunities during the years spent in the Texas legislature in the capacity of clerk was made apparent one year later, when he was admitted to the Texas bar.
Shortly after beginning the practice of law Dame Fortune knocked at his door and was hidden 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 & Louisiana Land & Lumber Company. This was in 1886. From this time until the present Mr. Kirby's career has been marked 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 Land Association, of which corporation Mr. Kirby 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. Mr. Kirby was then 30 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 farther to the north. The road is today a part of the Santa re system and is a substantial dividend payer.
INCEPTION OF THE KIRBY LUMBER COMPANY.
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 inaccessible to transportation. 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 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 & Lumber Company, the Beaumont Lumber Company, all of Beaumont; the Bancroft Lumber Company, of Orange, Tex.; Texas Pine Land Association, of Silsbee, Tex.; Yellow Pine Tie & Timber Company, at Lillard, Tex.; Cow Creek Tram Company, Call, Tex.; Kirbyville Lumber Company, Kirbyville, Tex.; Roganville Lumber Company, Roganville, Tex.; J. F. Keith Company. Sharon, Tex.; Village Mills Company, Village, Tex.; Southwestern Lumber Company, Mobile, Tex.; Doucette & Chapman, Woodville, Tex., and the T. H. Hackney Lumber Company, Fuqua, Tex.
OIL AND OTHER LATERAL INTERESTS.
Mr. Kirby 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 is 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. There is an important part in the industrial upbuilding of the state to, he played by this company, and the men behind it are fully capable of carrying out their parts.
In every enterprise with which Mr. Kirby has been connected he has accomplished what was expected of him and earned the highest praise and eulogiums of his friends and co-workers. He was receiver of the Houston Electric Railway Company and with skill and judgment put its affairs into splendid shape. He is president of two banks that rank among the most successful in Texas. 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 he has various interests, not the least of which are in connection with recently located oil fields of that section. Properly to enumerate his position it may be stated that he is president of the Kirby Lumber Company; president of the Planters' & Mechanics' National bank, of Houston; president of the First National bank of Austin and president of the Southwestern Oil Company.
COMMERCIAL, POLITICAL, AND PERSONAL RECOGNITION.
Upon his return from New York in the fall of 1901, after having successfully financed the Kirby Lumber Company, Mr. Kirby was the recipient of a monster demonstration the counterpart of which was never given to another son of Texas. The representative citizens of the state as well as of the city of Houston gathered 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. The demonstration came as a complete surprise to Mr. Kirby and will linger in the memory of each guest present.
During the past few years many political honors have been offered Mr. Kirby, but he has steadily declined them with one exception, which was to accept an appointment from Governor Savers, of Texas, as one of the board of commissioners to take charge of an exhibit of the resources and products of the Lone Star State at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, to be held in St. Louis in 1904. He has been elected president of the commission, and it is only in keeping with his past record to predict an exceptionally fine showing on the part of his native state, if energy and industry can make it such. A recent honor, not political, was his enthusiastic election, in early August of this year, to the presidency of the Transmississippi Congress.
What Mr. Kirby personally regards as the greatest exhibition of confidence in himself was displayed by a young lady, a Miss Lelia Stewart, many years ago when he was at the tender age of 23. At that time Mr. Kirby had only himself to offer, but this was considered sufficient. He was married November 14, 1883. They have one child, a daughter, Miss Bessie Kirby, now about 17 years of age.
Mr. Kirby is a thirty-second degree Mason, a Knight Templar and a member of the Houston lodge of Elks. He belongs to the Houston Club and also the Manhattan Club of New York.
Mr. Kirby has not amassed his fortune from the wrecks of others. He is a creative genius, not a destroying power. He has enriched, not impoverished, those with whom he has been associated. No man ever lost a dollar or suffered a heartache by placing confidence in him, though probably no man has ever been more abused financially by his friends; yet he never deserted one of them, and his purse is always open. He began his education at 19; married at 23; was admitted to the bar at 25 and at 35 his remarkable executive ability had attracted the attention of conservative financiers. During the fourteen years he has been in active business he has worked eight hours a day for himself; eight hours encouraging his friends, relieving the distress of the needy, frustrating his enemies by his cheerful indifference to their criticisms and cheering on to some useful employment every man and every boy who came within the range of his influence.