John Henry Kirby

John Henry Kirby

John Henry Kirby (1860-1940) was a businessman whose ventures made him arguably the largest lumber manufacturer in Texas and the Southern United States. In addition to serving two terms in the Texas Legislature, he would also establish the Kirby Petroleum Company. With his successful reputation, he would be known by his business peers as "The Prince of the Pines" and "The Father of Industrial Texas". [ [ Texas Travel ] ]
Kirbyville, Texas in Jasper County is named after him, as is Kirby Drive in Houston.
He was born unto John Thomas and Sarah (Payne) Kirby on November 16, 1860 in Tyler County. First taught to read & write by his mother, his formal education later on was limited to rural schools and one semester at Southwestern University, Georgetown where he studied law. With the influence of state senator Samuel Bronson Cooper, he would serve as a clerk in the Texas Senate from 1882-1884. [ Handbook of Texas Online - KIRBY, JOHN HENRY ] ] During his clerkship he married Lelia Stewart of Woodville. He would practice law for four years before moving to Houston to join the law firm of Hobby and Lanier.
In 1887 with Cooper’s influence, Kirby would provide legal services to a group of investors from Boston, Massachusetts. With their financial backing, the east Texas timberland would be harvested for lumber under the name "Texas Pine Land Association". This business alone provided Kirby with a small fortune. In 1893 he partnered with a lawyer named Nathaniel D. Silsbee, an investor from Boston. These two, along with an investor named Ellington Pratt would establish The Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railroad from Beaumont to San Augustine. [ [ Silsbee Texas History ] ] Upon the railroads completion, Kirby sold it to the Santa Fe Railroad Company which would extend its line to the new lumber processing site at Silsbee, the town named after the investor. The sale of the railroad yielded a high profit for Kirby. It was at this location in 1900 that the Kirby Lumber Company would be established. This business would be the largest lumber producer in the south, with Kirby controlling 300,000 acres (1200 km²) of timberland. [ [ John Henry Kirby ] ] At its peak between 1910 and 1920, it had some 16,500 employees and included twelve operating mills and five logging camps. [ [ Historic Houston: Great Houstonians: John Henry Kirby ] ]

Business venture in oil

The following year, and after the discovery of oil at Spindletop, Kirby partnered with Patrick Calhoun of the "Houston Oil Company" of Texas. Kirby sought an unusual business relationship between his lumber company and the oil entity. The "Kirby Lumber Company" would gain timber rights onto extensive east Texas land whereas the "Houston Oil Company" would gain land and maintain mineral rights. Several years later, legal issues would cause litigation in the Texas courts. Kirby over-estimated the value of the lumber. Also, the partners failed to clearly define ownership of certain land areas. [ [ Kirby Lumber Company Collection: An Inventory of its Records at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library ] ] The "Kirby Lumber Company" still continued to prosper despite court ordered receivership status for both companies. In 1902, Kirby took over the "Higgins Oil and Fuel Company" owned by Pattillo Higgins for 3 million dollars. [ [ TSHA Online - Texas State Historical Association ] ] Years later, in 1921 Kirby established the "Kirby Petroleum Company", which operated as a Houston-based oil and gas exploration company. [ [ Fondren Library Rice University — Fondren Library ] ]
In 1923, he received an honorary law degree from Lincoln Memorial University. Due to the Great Depression, his lumber company would suffer financial strain and fall into the hands of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company in 1933 due to bankruptcy. He remained president of the enterprise until his death on November 9, 1940. []

Personal beliefs on labor movements

John Henry Kirby was considered a generous employer, but was also well known for his opposition to labor unions. He also saw Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan for the working class a threat to American tradition. He even went as far as help co-found the "Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution" in direct opposition to FDR’s New Deal and contributed his money and energies to other anti-New Deal organizations. [ [ Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution ] ] [ [ TSHA Online - Texas State Historical Association ] ]

John H. Kirby State Forest

In 1929, he donated part of what is today the 626 acre (2.5 km²) John Henry Kirby State Forest which is located in Tyler County in southeastern Texas. [ [ Handbook of Texas Online - JOHN HENRY KIRBY STATE FOREST ] ]


*"John Henry Kirby: Prince of the Pines", by Mary Lasswell Smith (1967)


External links

* [ Kirby Corporation website with historical information]

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