John Henry Kirby, one of the prominent and representative business men of the South, is of English and Italian ancestry. On his father's side he is descended from Edmund Kirby, who, with his two brothers, all youths, came from England to Virginia about 1768. The three brothers were all soldiers in the Revolutionary army. Edmund Kirby married a daughter of William Shepherd, and settled in Stokes County, North Carolina, where a son, James Kirby, was born. The latter, growing up, married Elizabeth Longino, daughter of John Thomas Longino, an Italian nobleman who had been banished from Italy for political reasons and had married Mary Ransom of North Carolina. To James and Elizabeth Kirby was born a son, John Thomas Kirby, who was born in Kentucky, married Sarah Payne at Monticello, Mississippi, in 1841, and settled in Tyler County, Texas, in 1852, where he followed the occupation of a farmer.
To this latter couple the subject of this sketch was born, in Tyler County, Texas, on November 16, 1860. He was educated in the common schools of Tyler County, and at the Southwestern University at Georgetown, Texas. Until he was twenty years of age he worked upon his father's farm in the intervals of schooling.
He also taught a country school for a time, and was a clerk in the county Tax Office of Tyler County. Following the latter engagement he became for two years a clerk in the Texas State Senate. While in the Tax Office and the Senate clerkship he read law under S. B. Cooper, and in 1885, at the age of twenty-five years, he was admitted to practice at the bar. He entered upon the practice of his profession at Woodville, Tyler County, Texas, and there remained until 1890, when he removed to Houston, Texas.
This brief record of professional activity by no means, however, represents the doings of Mr. Kirby's busy life. In 1886 he was professionally engaged by a wealthy citizen of Boston, Massachusetts, to look after some small interests in Texas which were then in litigation. He persuaded his patron and client to invest extensively in Texas timber-lands, he sharing in the enterprise.
The outcome of the venture was most profitable, and Mr. Kirby was encouraged to continue in the lumber business, and has done so down to the present time with marked success, being now president of the Kirby Lumber Company, a corporation with $10,000,000 capital.
His lumber enterprises naturally led Mr. Kirby into other important undertakings, especially the construction of railroads.
In 1893, when the business of the whole country was suffering from acute depression, he began the construction of the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City Railroad, running into the heart of the pine-lumber country. Seven years later the completed road was sold to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, and now forms part of its great system, which affords to eastern Texas a highway to the North and Central West of great practical value.
Mr. Kirby is still a practising lawyer, at the head of the leading Houston firm of Kirby, Martin & Eagle. Besides being president of the Kirby Lumber Company above mentioned, he is president of the Planters' and Mechanics' National Bank of Houston, with $200,000 capital, and vice-president of the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City Railroad, of the Gulf, Beaumont & Northern Railroad, and of the Beaumont Wharf & Terminal Company. He is a director of the Houston Electric Street Railway Company, and also of the Houston Oil Company, a corporation with $30,000,000 capital. These various business activities have left Mr. Kirby no time even to think of engaging in politics, though he is one of the most popular citizens of the State. He is a member of the Houston Club of Houston, Texas, and of the Manhattan Club of New York city. He also belongs to the Magnolia Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, to the Washington Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, to the Ruthven Commandery of Knights Templar, to the Scottish Rite Masons of the Thirty-second Degree, to the Houston Lodge of Elks, and to the Knights of Pythias.
He was married in early life — on November 14, 1883, when he was only twenty-three years old — to Miss Lelia Stewart, at Woodville, Texas. They have one child, Miss Bessie May Kirby, who was born in 1886.
Speaking of the affairs of Mr. Kirby's big lumber company, one of the directors recently said:
"The Kirby Lumber Company has already purchased five sawmills having an annual aggregate sawing capacity of 250,000,000 feet. We have contracted for others and will probably require an additional 100,000,000 feet of capacity through mills which we now have under contract. In addition to this, the company purposes to build five or more large mills in the big forest, having an annual capacity of 150,000,000 feet. This will bring the output of the Kirby Lumber Company up to more than 1,000,000 feet per day.
"The chief weakness of the lumber business in the eastern Texas district up to the present time has been that there was no concern here, prior to the organization of the Kirby Lumber Company, big enough to take care of the business. We are now preparing to take anything that comes, and we expect to supply promptly not only the domestic trade, but to take desirable large business from abroad. Through economies of management we expect to reduce the cost of production, at the same time increasing our facilities for distribution, so that we will be prepared to compete for the business of the whole world, no matter where the market may lie. Three of our mills are in Beaumont and two in Orange. Two other mills in Orange will be forced to stop their saws and to go out of business because we now own the forest from which they would have to draw their supply of timber."