JOHN HENRY KIRBY, capitalist, financier, empire builder and philanthropist, is probably the best known lumber man in the United States and is one of the most progressive, public spirited and helpful citizens of the Lone Star State. So, any volume on the builders of Texas, would be incomplete without taking into account the life, history and influence of John H. Kirby. whose name is synonomous with the lumber industry of Texas. Mr. Kirby came to Houston in 1890. the move from East Texas becoming necessary on account of his growing interests. He was, at that time, thirty years of age and was the head of two of the largest timber companies in Texas. With the foresight that has characterized him, Mr. Kirby knew that the development of his properties were handicapped without proper transportation facilities, and he immediately began the construction of the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railroad, which penetrated the heart of the Eastern Texas pine district. The building of this railroad was the greatest boon in furnishing an outlet to the markets of the country for the great virgin pine forests of East Texas which Mother Nature had so lavishly given. Later this road became a part of the Santa Fe Railroad system. It is no wonder that Mr. Kirby is looked upon today as the leading Southern financier and is hailed as the Moses o£ 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 this section. In 1901 it became necessary to form a lumber manufacturing company to market the vast timber holdings and accordingly the Kirby Lumber Company was organized with a capital stock of $10,000,000.00, and the Houston Oil Company with a capital stock of $30,000,000.00, in both of which Mr. Kirby was the moving spirit. Upon his return to Houston from New York in the fall of 1901, after having successfully financed the Kirby Lumber Company, he was the recipient of a monster demonstration, the counterpart of which was never given to another son of Texas. Citizens of the State, as well as of Houston gathered to honor him, which came as a complete surprise, as he considered the successful accomplishment of his New York mission as nothing out of the ordinary, as the State with its wonderful resources, and its great and progressive citizenship, worthy of anything that might be asked or bestowed. Since its organization, the Kirby Lumber Company has maintained its position as one of the largest lumber manufacturing concerns in the world. It has been manufacturing and marketing about three hundred million feet of yellow pine lumber annually and the timber holdings of this company are large enough to permit a continuance of production at this rate until 1940. Seven thousand people are employed by the Kirby Lumber Company in the various branches of this great industry. They have purchased all of the hardwood holdings of the Houston Oil Company, and in addition to its immense supply of yellow pine stumpage is now the largest single holder of hardwood stumpage in the United States. The products of the Kirby Mills have a world-wide reputation; branch offices are maintained in various large cities of the United States and branch offices and agents in foreign countries.
A native Texan, Mr. Kirby was born in Tyler County November 16, 1860. His father, John Thomas Kirby, was a pioneer citizen of East Texas His mother was Miss Sarah Payne, a member of a well known Mississippi family. Mr. Kirby was the seventh child in the family, and a few months after his birth, the family moved to Woodville, the County Seat of Tyler County. This move 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, when 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 many 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 H., then a boy of six years, had all the necessary qualifications for a useful American citizen of the future, which consisted of health, a loving mother and the advantage of having his own way to make in the world. 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 H. Kirby was born. John Thomas Kirby was the first of the family to move to Texas, going to the Lone Star State in 1850. Mr. Kirby's early education was obtained at home under the able tutelage of his mother. Tyler County, at that time, was thinly populated and public schools were not numerous and private schools in East Texas did not exist. He had progressed well in his studies at home and at the age of nineteen years, his parents sent him to a country school for one term, after which he secured sufficient funds to enable him to attend for one term the Southwestern University at Georgetown, Texas, by teaching and working in the office of the Tax Collector at Woodville, Texas. He continued his studies during his leisure time and served as a Clerk in the Texas Legislature for three years, 1882-3-4, and while in this service he had access to the Law Library of the Hon. S. Bronson Cooper, at that time State Senator, and to whom Mr. Kirby acted as Secretary. It was during the time that he was Secretary to Mr. Cooper that the thought came to Mr. Cooper that East Texas timber was valuable and asked Mr. Kirby to make inquiries of Eastern lumber people about the value of standing timber. The result was that the State put up the value of State timber lands. It also gave Mr. Kirby the idea to buy such lands in East Texas. It shows that the State was informed from his investigation as to timber values and saved the State of Texas many millions of dollars. It was Mr. Kirby's great desire to become a lawyer and when he faced the problem of securing an education along this line, he applied himself to the task with enthusiastic determination and in 1885 he was admitted to the bar.
There is no greater lesson to the youth of Texas of what applied industry will accomplish, than is found in the life and achievement of this man. He has never forgotten the schooling he received at the hands of his devoted mother, which he has used as a foundation to build throughout the years that have brought him business success and positions of honor and trust at the hands of his fellowmen. Among the first cases he received after he established his office and began the general practice of law, was that of some Eastern people whom he successfully represented in a land deal in Eastern Texas. Success in this matter established confidence in himself and the confidence and good will of his clients, and from that time until his interests became so great that he was forced to give up the law, his practice increased, both in Texas and in the East.
Mr. Kirby was married at Woodvllle, Texas, November 14, 1883, to Miss Lslia Stewart, a native Texan and a member of a well known East Texas family. They have one daughter, Mrs. Bessie Mae Rawcliffe, and three grandchildren. In addition to Mr. Kirby's lumber interests, he has interested himself in many other fields, and is an officer or director in the following companies: President of the Kirby Lumber Company, President of the Kirby Petroleum Company, President of the Kirby Investment Company, Womack Construction Company, Southern Tariff Association, Southern Pine Association and the National Lumber Manufacturers Association, and is an officer and director in many other business enterprises in Texas and elsewhere. Mr. Kirby's real estate investments have not been limited to Houston, and he is the owner of a large amount of property in other cities, among this being the twenty-story Kirby Building in Dallas. He has always declined all political honors, but has always accepted his full responsibility as a citizen and has served the industry in this country in many capacities. He was chairman of the Board of Commissioners in charge of the Texas exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904, and was President of the Trans-Mississippi Congress. In 1917, Mr. Kirby was prevailed upon to take the position of Lumber Director of the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation and succeeded in putting the production and distribution of ship timbers, so vitally needed at that time, on a sound business basis. Later President Harding summoned him to Washington to sit as a member of the Conference on Unemployment. He was also a member of the Brazilian Commission. In 1918 Mr. Kirby was elected President of the National Lumber Manufacturers Association and served as the head of this great organization during the war period, at which time the lumber industry was charged with the responsibility of furnishing lumber for cantonments at home and abroad; the timber for shipbuilding, docks and warehouses. In 1922, Mr. Kirby was elected President of the Southern Pine Association, which position he now holds, having been a Director of it since its organization. Shortly after the close of the war, the plight of the farmers and ranchmen being called to Mr. Kirby's attention, he assisted in the organization of the Southern Tariff Association and became its President. This organization led the fight for a protective tariff on raw material, the winning of which has meant so much to the farmers of the nation. Probably the greatest honor that has come to Mr. Kirby in recent years is the recognition of his patriotism and service to mankind by the Lincoln Memorial University of Tennessee. This educational institution named for that American, Abraham Lincoln, on May 7, 1923, conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws.
Mr. Kirby is a member of the Masonic fraternity to the 32nd degree, a Knight Templar and Shriner. He is also a member of the various Houston Clubs, the B. P. 0. E and other social and civic organizations of the city. He is also a member of the Manhattan Club of New York. Since Mr. Kirby took up his residence in Houston, he has always been a believer in the future of his home city and he has never hesitated to make investments in Houston real estate. He has always willingly backed every proposition to build up the city, and a large number of the business men of Houston owe their success to his willingness to help. Great success and fame have not changed his attitude toward his fellow man, for he is as popular with the man who toils as with the captains of industry. His charities are boundless, but not ostentatious. His friends say he is imposed upon, but this has not changed his kindly and lovable disposition, for he holds no ill will for anyone, but always maintains his trustful openhearted demeanor. Mr. Kirby has just purchased six hundred acres beyond the Rice Institute, between Bray's Bayou and Bellaire Boulevard, fronting on Main Boulevard. He will erect two permanent residences there, one for himself and one for his son-in-law, J. F. B. Rawcliffe; the rest of the acreage will be improved and placed on the market, as a restricted residence district. The purchase of this property shows Mr. Kirby's faith in the future of Houston, which he is ready to back with his money. His faith in the future of the Lone Star State has never waned but has grown stronger each year. It is because of such men that the Lone Star State today in all its prodigious industries is making such strides in expansion and big business.