JOHN THOMAS KIRBY, father of the man whose name is familiar as the organizer and chief executive of the greatest industrial corporation of Texas, was himself a man of remarkable personality and character, whose name will not soon fail the memory of the people of East Texas. His death, on April 8, 1909, at his old home in Tyler county, closed a life that contained few events of the dramatic quality but was exceedingly rich in those elements of manhood which constitute noblemen in all ages.
Because the achievements of such a man do not lend themselves readily to narrative biography, it is difficult to describe his career and make it justify the essential greatness of his character. Those who knew him will always remember the lovable old man, and the record of his history would be incomplete without mention of the affections which bound so many hundreds to him and which were among the best fruits of his life. One tribute to him of this kind may be quoted: “Texas contained no more lovable character than John T. Kirby. He was one of the most picturesque characters of East Texas and was known far and wide and dearly beloved. He possessed an intellect of remarkable qualities and soundness; his wisdom and his wide knowledge and accurate judgment marked him as an unusual man. He had a keen sense of humor and was famed for his wit and his unvarying good nature and love of fun."
The late John T. Kirby was not a cosmopolitan citizen in the sense that his son is. He was not known in the great financial centers of the east and was seldom seen in the cities of his own state. One of his remarkable characteristics was his fondness for the retired and comfortable country home which all the worldly success of his children could never induce him to leave. From the days of the Civil war until the last he recognized no other spot as home except the little village of Tyler county formerly known as Peach Tree and which has since become known as Chester. In fact, he had made his home near this village from the time he settled in the county in 1851, and his residence there was interrupted only once, for a few years. His old home grew dearer to him and to his children with every passing year, and when, a few years before his death, the house was burned, his son, John H., at once set to work and constructed on the same spot an exact duplicate of the old home which meant so much to them all. In six weeks the house was ready for occupancy, and in it the father spent his last days.
In speaking of this feature of his life, one of the editorials at the time of his death said: “He devoted his life to tilling the soil. Commercialism did not appeal to him; in the march of events he was unmindful of the struggle for gain and the strife for political and commercial supremacy. He was content to continue in his peaceful and happy occupation of a farmer, and even in his older age could not be persuaded to leave the old homestead.”
Another fact about the Kirby home that should not fail to be mentioned was its hospitality. Though this quality is characteristic of most southern homes, it was graced by added attractiveness at the Kirby's. so that the old homestead, from pioneer times, was looked upon as a social center for a large section. During the years before the railroad had penetrated that neighborhood, travelers passing through almost always availed themselves of the welcome at the Kirby threshold. And in these more modern times it has continued to exercise the same fascination for both friends and strangers in that vicinity.
Of his family and personal history, the records are that the Kirby family, originally of England, was founded in America before the Revolution by three brothers, who all served in the war. One of these, Edmund Kirby, married Mary Shepherd, and moved from Virginia to North Carolina, where their son. James Kirby, was born.
James Kirby married Elizabeth Longino. She was a daughter of John Thomas and Mary (Ransome) Longino. Her father was an Italian nobleman, an exile from his native land in 1773 and henceforth a resident of North Carolina, and founder of a family of noted people, including Houston Longino, a former governor of Mississippi. James Kirby and wife crossed the mountains into Kentucky, and from that state moved to Alabama, and later to Mississippi, where their children were reared.
The eldest son of these parents was the late John Thomas Kirby. He was born in Kentucky, February 4, 1821, and grew to manhood near Monticello, Mississippi. At the outbreak of the war with Mexico he enlisted, but his regiment did not reach the field in time to see active service.
In 1850 he moved from Mississippi to Texas, and the following year found the spot in Tyler county where he was content to spend nearly sixty years of his life. In 1860 he was induced to accept the only important office which he held, the office of sheriff, which caused him to remove temporarily to the county seat at Woodville. In the following year, with the beginning of the war, he enlisted and served as a private in the Confederate army throughout the war. He then returned to the farm near Peach Tree village and took up the peaceful pursuits which were never interrupted until death.
On December 16, 1841, in Mississippi, Mr. Kirby married Miss Sarah Payne. Their marriage ties were unbroken for over sixty-seven years and happily continued many years after they had celebrated the golden anniversary. Such lives are their own reward, and are the best proofs of the possession of the loving kindness, the mutual self-sacrifice and cheerfulness which are among the greatest virtues. Their surviving children are: James L. and John Henry; Mrs. Lee Weathersby, of Silsbee; Mrs. W. W. Fortenberry, of Houston. and Mrs. Aurelia Burch, of Houston. There are also fifteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren. Besides Mrs. Kirby, who is now eighty-five, there is a brother, Capt. Henry S. Kirby, of Hondo, now aged eighty-one.
The late John Thomas Kirby was for more than fifty years a member of Mount Hope Lodge, A. F. & A. M., and in Masonry he found some of the cardinal principles which exemplified his life and character. Masonry, he asserted, “taught brotherly love and charity — the real kind, that maintains hospitality at home, relieves distress wherever found, and cares for the widows and orphans."