John Henry Kirby, biography c. 1910
[from Historical Review of South-East Texas]
  Source: Hardy, Dermont H. and Ingham S. Roberts, eds. "John Henry Kirby”, The Historical Review of Southeast Texas. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910. Vol. II, pp. 1023-1025.

JOHN HENRY KIRBY for the past fifteen years has been the strongest personality in the financial and industrial life of Southeast Texas. No other individual has attempted and achieved so much, on such a large scale, in the organization of the industrial interests and the exploitation of the principal natural resources of East Texas. In the lumber and affiliated industries of East Texas Mr. Kirby occupies a position and exercises a power similar to the of?ce of commander-in-chief of a great army. Individually he has not performed all the vast work undertaken in his name, but he has been the responsible leader and has commanded the loyalty and made effective the efforts of a great body of executives and skilled laborers who comprise the army under the standard of the Kirby Lumber Company and its allied corporations.

Mr. Kirby is often referred to as the greatest financier of the South. Without doubt he is one of the most capable organizers of capital and industry on a large scale in the United States at this time. His place is among the great managers of railroads, manufactures and other productive enterprises, and for more than a decade he has been one of the largest producers of actual wealth in this country.

The Kirby Lumber Company has receptly gone through the fires of receivership, and is now reorganized on a sound basis that should endure for years. From the organization of this great. corporation up to the present time Mr. Kirby has been the dominant factor in its control, and that he has finally triumphed over the difficulties that beset the enterprise has been hailed as a great victory for Texas business, and he has been honored accordingly.

As a history of Southeast Texas could not be written without describing its magnificent lumber and oil resources and mentioning the chief part taken in their development by the Kirby Lumber Company, there is likewise an appointed place among the builders of this section for some mention of the personality who has furnished most of the brains and executive ability for this corporation.

In the life of his late father, as sketched above, may be found many of the resources and powers of character which pass by inheritance from father to son. The affection that always existed between John H. Kirby and his father has been often remarked, and it is said that on many occasions business men have come to his office in Houston with urgent business, only to find that he could not be reached until he returned from the old home which he loved and where he was able to put away all business worries.

John Henry Kirby was born in Tyler county, November 16, 1860, being the seventh of his father's children. During the first few years of his life his father was in the office of sheriff or in the army, but from the age of six until he attained manhood his home was in the quiet home at Peach Tree village. The best resource of his subsequent career has been the health and strength which are largely the result of his rugged outdoor life as a boy. He honors his mother for her devotion to him through all his life, and especially for the care which she bestowed upon his early training. She taught him to read and write and encouraged his natural fondness for wider knowledge. When he was nineteen his father sent him to school for one year, and then, by teaching and clerical work, he obtained the money to attend a term at the Southwestern University at Georgetown. This was the basis of his education, but he was noted as one of the most assiduous and retentive readers in that part of the country. He read all the books he could beg or borrow, and had the gift of mastering a book when he had closed it.

His studious tastes and early inclinations were toward the profession of law. \Vhile clerk in the Texas legislature, during 1882-3-4, he had access to libraries and opportunities for study which he used to excellent advantage, and in 1885 was admitted to the bar. In less than six years he had educated himself and gained admission to the bar, and during part of the time had supported himself and wife.

As a lawyer his first important case was as legal representative for some Boston people who were in trouble over some land. He won the case, and at the same time gained the confidence of eastern capitalists, so that he became one of the principals in the organization of the Texas & Louisiana Land & Lumber Company. This company, formed in 1886, was the first of a long list of industrial concerns which have originated with Mr. Kirby or have been largely controlled by him. He was soon afterward a principal in the organization of the Texas Pine Land Association, and became its general manager. These were two of the largest timber companies of Texas, and Mr. Kirby was not yet thirty years old when he became head of them. In 1890 the extent of his business required the removal of his headquarters to a central city, and he has since had his permanent home in Houston.

A large part of the timber area of East Texas was then inaccessible for profitable lumbering, because of lack of transportation. One of Mr. Kirby’s great enterprises was the construction of a railroad to the heart of the pine district. This was the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City Railroad, and he began its construction in 1893. His successful ability to organize capital and to carry out any enterprise which he undertook was shown in the building of this railroad. At that time the financial panic had withdrawn capital from practically all constructive enterprise, but against this condition Mr. Kirby built his road and found the money to finance it. The road extended north from Beaumont about seventy-five miles, and was the first transportation line to reach the pine forests of Jasper county and vicinity. This line was later sold to and is now a part of the Santa Fe System.

The building of this railroad was the first step in the organization of the lumber interests of East Texas into one great corporation. Great quantities of timber land came into his hands during the financial depression, its former owners having become discouraged with their investment and being glad to unload their holdings. Mr. Kirby then laid plans for the organization of a company with capital enough to buy the best timber properties of East Texas and with sufficient facilities for manufacture so that it could fill orders for lumber and deliver it in any amount to any part of the world. This was the substance of his ambition, and to anyone familiar with the operations of the Kirby Lumber Company it would seem that he succeeded in realizing his ambition.

In addition to the capital which he already had working in this direction, he was able to secure aid from eastern financiers, and as a result the Kirby Lumber Company was formed, with a capital stock of $10,000,000. This company soon acquired the milling properties that had previously been operated by fourteen different companies.

The success of the plan required still another corporation, and in 190l the Houston Oil Company was chartered, with a capital stock of $30,000,000, which was double the capitalization of any previous Texas corporation. The Houston Oil Company was a holding company for the various enterprises conducted by the Kirby Lumber Company, and also being chartered for the development and production of oil. The ownership of all the timber and lands contracted for by the Kirby Lumber Company was vested in this company, and the properties which it controlled and owned covered a considerable portion of the map of East Texas and represented wealth in the many millions.

The financing and organization of these great corporations were a stupendous undertaking, and it was so recognized after the return of Mr. Kirby from New York in 1901, following the culmination of his plans. Representative citizens of the state, as well as of Houston, assembled at the Rice Hotel on November 12, 1901, and paid a tribute to the event and the man which would rarely be done in honor of an accomplishment in the business world. But he had done what only a great man could do, and it was acknowledged accordingly. In explanation of what he has achieved in business it is said to be a principle of Mr. Kirby’s character and conduct that he firmly believes that what man has done man can do, and that in the field where his experience has developed his powers he is able to cope successfully with all the difflculties that may oppose.

Mr. Kirby’s position at the head of the great lumber interests has at the same time identified him closely with the entire financial life of Texas. He is president of the Planters & Mechanics National Bank of Houston. He was president of the Texas commission at theWorld’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, and is vice president for Texas of the National Manufacturers’ Association. He is president of the Gammel-Statesman Publishing Company at Austin. He was president of the Trans-Mississippi Commercial Congress in 1904. He is a thirty-second degree Scottish Rite Mason and a member of the Elks at Houston, and of the Houston Club and the Manhattan Club of New York.

Mr. Kirby married, at Woodville, November 14, 1883, Miss Lelie Stewart. They have one child, Bessie.

Text and images were digitized and proofread from the original source documents by Murry Hammond. Contact Murry for all corrections and contributions of new material.