John Henry Kirby

John Henry Kirby (November 16, 1860 – November 9, 1940) was a businessman whose ventures made him the largest lumber manufacturer in Texas and the Southern United States. In addition to serving two terms in the Texas Legislature, he also established the Kirby Petroleum Company. With his successful reputation, he was known by his business peers as "The Prince of the Pines" and "The Father of Industrial Texas".[1]Kirbyville, Texas in Jasper County is named after him, as is Kirby Drive and Upper Kirby in Houston.

John Henry Kirby
John Henry Kirby portrait.jpg
Born(1860-11-16)November 16, 1860
DiedNovember 9, 1940(1940-11-09) (aged 79)
Houston, Texas
OccupationEntrepreneur; corporate president
Years active1882–1940
Known forFounding Kirby Lumber Company and Houston Oil Company
Parent(s)John Thomas and Sarah (Payne) Kirby
Signature of John Henry Kirby (1860–1940).png

Early life and political tiesEdit

He was born to John Thomas and Sarah (Payne) Kirby on November 16, 1860 in Tyler County, and brought up on the family's homestead which is now Camp Ta-Ku-La. First taught to read and 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 served as a clerk in the Texas Senate from 1882 to 1884.[2] During his clerkship he married Lelia Stewart of Woodville. He practiced law for four years before moving to Houston to join the law firm of Hobby and Lanier.

In 1887, with Cooper's influence, Kirby provided legal services to a group of investors from Boston, Massachusetts. With their financial backing, the east Texas timberland was 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, established the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railroad from Beaumont to San Augustine.[3] Upon the railroad's completion, Kirby sold it to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway which extended 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 was established. This business became the largest lumber producer in the south, with Kirby controlling 300,000 acres (1200 km²) of timberland.[4] At its peak between 1910 and 1920, it had some 16,500 employees and included twelve operating mills and five logging camps. [5]

Business venture in oilEdit

The following year, and after the discovery of oil at Spindletop, Kirby partnered with Patrick Calhoun of the Houston Oil Company of Texas. Kirby created an unusual business relationship between his lumber company and the oil entity: the Kirby Lumber Company gained timber rights onto extensive east Texas land, where as the Houston Oil Company gained land and maintained mineral rights. Several years later, legal problems arose because Kirby overestimated the value of the lumber, and the partners failed to clearly define ownership of certain land areas.[6] 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.[7] In 1921, Kirby established the Kirby Petroleum Company, a Houston-based oil and gas exploration company.[8]

In 1923, Kirby received an honorary law degree from Lincoln Memorial University. Due to the Great Depression, his lumber company suffered financial strain and fell into the hands of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1933 due to bankruptcy. He remained president of the enterprise until his death on November 9, 1940.[9][10]

Personal beliefs on labor movementsEdit

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 and pro-segregation organizations.[2][11][12][13]

John H. Kirby State ForestEdit

In 1929, Kirby 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.[14]



  1. ^ "Texas Travel". Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved August 16, 2006.
  2. ^ a b Handbook of Texas Online - KIRBY, JOHN HENRY
  3. ^ "Silsbee Texas History". Archived from the original on February 5, 2017. Retrieved August 16, 2006.
  4. ^ John Henry Kirby
  5. ^ 174 Years of Historic Houston: Great Houstonians: John Henry Kirby
  6. ^ Kirby Lumber Company Collection: An Inventory of its Records at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library
  7. ^ TSHA Online – Texas State Historical Association
  8. ^ Fondren Library Rice University — Fondren Library
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 1, 2006. Retrieved August 16, 2006.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ "John Henry Kirby Dies in Houston". San Angelo Standard-Times. Houston. AP. November 10, 1940. p. 1. Retrieved February 16, 2022 – via
  11. ^ Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution
  12. ^ TSHA Online – Texas State Historical Association
  13. ^ National Affairs: Black on Blacks, TIME Magazine, April 27, 1936
  14. ^ Handbook of Texas Online – JOHN HENRY KIRBY STATE FOREST

External linksEdit