THOMAS WILLIAM HOUSE.— Most men are born in a field of action which they accept as sufficient for them. The world of human life, however, has been advanced from its old places to its new by men who have not been content with their surroundings, but who have gone forth and found or made something new or different from the narrowness in which they began. Of both classes it is true that the success attained by each individual is very nearly measured by his perception of the requirements of his surroundings. This perception is not the result of education, but belongs to those faculties which we designate as native or intuitive. When it is possessed by any one in that degree that it leads him unerringly to great success through the mazes of commercial or professional life, it rises to the dignity of genius, and should be so classed. It is as much the indispensable requisite of
the successful merchant as the successful statesman, lawyer or artist, and a review of the life of any successful man of business will show at every turn in his career that he possessed this faculty.
No better example of the correctness of the foregoing observations could be asked for than that found in the life of the late Thomas William House. He was born in Stockest Gregory, Somersetshire, England, on the 4th day of March, 1814. He came of respectable parentage and good old English stock, though there never was an effort on the part of his people to connect themselves with the nobility in any manner nor to trace their origin to a royal source. His family concerned itself but little with anything beyond the problems of daily life, loyalty to the government under which they were born and lived, and with the usual attachments of home and fireside.
It is questionable if one should say that Thomas W. House had not the advantages of a good education. That he did not receive any school training to speak of in his youth is certain, but whether if he had received any such training he would have been any the better qualified for the labor which afterwards fell to his hands is doubtful. To one of his vigorous understanding and practical perception the world really offered the best school, and the time which he might have spent conning over books and mastering rules and formulas and tenses was perhaps better spent in grappling with the actual solution of those problems which, after all, as many a college graduate has learned, fail to yield to the methods laid down in the books. He seems to have been somewhat variously employed in his boyhood and youth, but, tiring of the restrictions and limitations under which he was born, and with which he felt himself so closely hedged about, he did as many another of his countrymen has done, turned his eyes toward the more promising fields of activity on this side of the Atlantic. He came to America in 1835, soon after attaining his majority, landing at New York city, then, as now, the gateway of the continent and the place where the emigrant spends the first few months of his life in the new world. In that city young House soon found employment at the bakers trade, which trade he learned there and followed in that city over a year. In the meantime he met a Mr. McDonnell, proprietor of the St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, and was induced by that gentleman to come South and take charge of the bakery department of that famous hostelry. He resided in New Orleans, working for Mr. McDonnell, until the latter part of 1837 or the early part of 1838, when he came to Texas and located at Houston. Houston had but a short time before been made the temporary seat of government for the new Republic; and hither had flocked from all quarters of the globe a miscellaneous population bent on various enterprises and schemes, but all agreeing in at least one particular, namely, that they must be fed. Mr. House had saved the wages which he had earned in New York and New Orleans, and he invested them in a bakery and confectionery establishment immediately after locating here, forming a partnership with a man named Loveridge. Their place of business, like all of the early business houses, was near the bayou, being situated about midway of the block on Main street between Franklin and Commerce. The following year Mr. House became associated with Charles Shearn, with whom he was in partnership about two years, cementing the friendship which sprung up between him and this good man by marrying the latter's daughter. After the withdrawal of Mr. Shearn from the business Mr. House was alone for nearly ten years. His business grew rapidly, and the lines were extended so as to embrace a general assortment of merchandise. He did a considerable wholesale business in confectioneries with smaller dealers in interior Texas; but finding that to develop any one branch to its utmost possibilities would necessitate the neglect of the others, he began to gradually discontinue the candy and confectionery department, and give his attention more especially to dry goods.
In 1853 he purchased the large and flourishing jobbing establishment of James H. Stevens & Company, who dealt heavily in dry goods and groceries; and, along with the stock, bought the ground and stores, the site being the same as that now occupied by the bank on Main street, between Franklin and Congress avenues. For all this he paid the sum of $40,000, this being the largest single transaction of the kind that had ever been consummated up to that time in the city of Houston. During the same year Mr. House took into partnership E. Mather, who had been with him as an employee since 1841, and the firm of T. W. House & Company soon came to do the largest wholesale dry goods and grocery business in the State. The money transactions of this establishment were considered as extraordinary for the time, and its reputation spread to the remotest parts of the State.
From the first Mr. House received cotton in exchange for goods. Gradually, as the cultivation of this staple increased and the handling became more an object of commercial importance, he entered the market as a buyer. The growth of this branch of his business kept pace with that of the others, and when it reached such proportions as to demand a separate department; this was added, the date being 1853.
Mr. Mather retired from the firm in 1862 and Mr. House again became sole owner. While the unsettled condition of things brought on by the war interfered very materially with his trade, there was never any suspension, but he continued, all through the troublous times of 1861-65, to do a reasonably large and prosperous business. At times he did a very heavy business in the way of handling cotton, buying and shipping to English markets, to reach which he had to run the blockade established by the Federal Government. He owned several vessels which were engaged at different times in this business. He also shipped thousands of bales through Mexico, freighting them from this point to Mexican ports by wagons. After the war Mr. House's business was in prime condition for the era of prosperity which followed, and it made rapid strides in the widening sphere of commercial activity.
There were but few banks in Texas in an early day, the banking business being done by the larger merchants. Mr. House began to receive deposits as early as 1840. Later he began issuing exchange, and in this way the foundation of his banking business was laid. This business was of steady growth, and came by imperceptible degrees to claim more and more attention. Soon after the war a separate department was created for the transaction of this branch of the business, and for a period of about fifteen years the several lines — wholesale dry-goods and groceries, cotton dealing and banking,— were carried along and developed, each in accordance with the demands of the times. Mr. House also had large real-estate interests, owning immense quantities of land, improved and unimproved, and lots and business houses in other towns in the State. Among his larger real-estate holdings was the "Areola Sugar Plantation," purchased in 1871, which he greatly improved, and which still belongs to his estate. The sugar product from this plantation took the premium at the New Orleans Exposition in 1884, in a contest where the chief sugar-raising countries of the world were competitors. A stock ranch of 70,000 acres in La Salle county was one of the important holdings of this nature which Mr. House developed.
While immersed in these various enterprises and pursuits Mr. House yet found time to assist in carrying on the municipal government which protected his property, to help develop enterprise of a public nature, and to perform, in general, the duties of a citizen of the community in which he lived. On the organization of Protection Fire Company, in 1848, he became a member and remained one as long as he lived. In 1857, and again in 1861, he was chosen a member of the Board of Aldermen of the city, and served two terms of two years each. In 1862 he was elected Mayor and held this office one term. He was a charter member of the Ship Channel Company, and was always a stanch friend of that enterprise. He was one of the originators of the Houston Gas Company, and was for a number of years its president, and probably its largest stockholder. He was at one time a director of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, and lent that enterprise substantial aid when aid was needed. He was also a stockholder in the Houston & Great Northern, and the International, before their consolidation, and in the Houston Tap & Brazoria Railroad. In 1874 he was elected president of the Texas Western Narrow Gauge, and built that line to San Felipe. In the Houston Direct Navigation Company, the Houston City Street Railway Company, and the first two compress companies — the Houston City and the People's — he was a large investor. In fact it may be said without any exaggeration that he contributed liberally of his means to all public enterprises, and, whenever occasion demanded, lent his personal influence and active effort for the success of any movement which he believed to be for the welfare of the community in which he lived.
A career so exceptionally successful in a financial way as that of Mr. House's would, one must think, be signally lacking in completeness if it were not rounded out by a happy domestic life, and if it did not show scattered by the wayside those many evidences of abroad and generous nature which we naturally expect to find in a man of such superior makeup. He married Miss Mary Shearn, daughter of Judge Charles Shearn, another of Houston's honored old citizens, a biography of whom will be found under an appropriate title in this volume. "A better and a truer woman than Mary Shearn House," says an old citizen, "never lived." So, too, thought her husband, and he paid her at all times the honest, manly devotion of a truly chivalrous and noble nature. The result of this union was eight children, one of whom died in infancy, one in youth and six of whom became grown, one dying about the age of maturity. The eldest of the six was a daughter, Mary, who was married to R. M. Caldwell, both herself and husband being now deceased. The four sons now living are: Thomas William, Jr., John H. B., Charles S., and Edward M. Mrs. House died on the 28th day of January, 1870, and was followed ten years later by her husband, who passed away on the 17th day of January, 1880.
The death of Mr. House was one of the most serious losses of the kind that this city ever sustained. He was one of its oldest citizens and had been foremost in almost everything pertaining to its history. The institutions with which he was connected were its chiefest pride, and his name was a tower of strength in all transactions with which he had to do. His funeral was attended in great numbers by all classes and conditions of people, who testified in every appropriate way to the esteem in which he was held by them. The Cotton Exchange, of which he was a member, passed suitable resolutions; and expressions of regret on account of his loss, and of sympathy and condolence for his family were general not only in this city but throughout the State.
It is an interesting and profitable study to trace the career of a man like Thomas W. House — one who without aid of any kind from without, rose by force of his own genius from a position of poverty and obscurity to one of affluence and honored distinction. That his rise was not without great labor and many trials of his strength it is needless to say; but that he was equal to every test, and, what is more, never throughout his long career, yielded one jot or tittle of his character as a high-minded and honorable gentleman, is perhaps the most creditable thing that can be said of him. The fortune that he left at his death, estimated at some two and a half millions of dollars, was an immense estate for one man, beginning with nothing, to accumulate in little over forty years; but this is not the principal monument he left to his memory. His virtues were greater than his achievements; his personal worth more than his gains. Wedded to a brain of surpassing native force he had a heart that was attuned to the faintest murmurings of his race. Never a fellow mortal went to him in distress and left empty-handed. Once satisfied that his help was needed he ask no questions, but gave generously, as became one of his means.
But perhaps the most signal trait of his character was that which enabled him to draw men around him, inspire their respect and hold them with unvarying devotion to himself and his interests. There are now gray-haired men in the bank which he founded, who entered his employ as striplings, and the writer has the first one yet to meet who was ever with him in any capacity, that did not speak most feelingly of him and his many expressions of kindness and friendship for them, and here probably, along with his keen mental insight and his superior knowledge of men, is to be found the source of his great success — his ability to organize and to infuse into those to whom his affairs were entrusted a sense of pride and personal responsibility in the work in hand.
Mr. House was not a member of any secret society nor of any church. But he was a constant attendant on the services of the Methodist Church, and was considered one of the largest contributors to the support of that denomination in the city.