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Kirby, John Henry, 1860-1940 | University of Houston Libraries

Name: Kirby, John Henry, 1860-1940

Historical Note:

Lumber and oil baron John Henry Kirby was born on November 16, 1860 on his family’s farm in Tyler County in East Texas.  Educated chiefly by his mother throughout his youth, Kirby attended only one year of formal education at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX.  In 1883, he married Lelia Stewart, who gave birth to the couple’s only child, Bessie May, in 1886.

A clerkship in the law office of state senator Samuel Bronson Cooper and Kirby’s own self-directed law studies paved the way for his passing the Texas bar in 1885.  Kirby practiced law for four years in Woodville, TX, the seat of Tyler County.  During this time, Cooper introduced him to a group of investors from Boston who later helped Kirby establish the Texas and Louisiana Land and Lumber Company and the Texas Pine Land Association in the timberlands of East Texas.  By the time he was 30 years old, Kirby had amassed a small fortune as the head of these two large timber companies, and in 1890 he and his family moved to Houston.

As his interests in lumber development continued, he built the Gulf, Beaumont, and Kansas City Railway in 1896, bringing large-scale transportation into the heart of the East Texas pine district for the first time.  He co-founded the Houston Oil Company of Texas and the Kirby Lumber Company in 1901; became president of Southwestern Oil Company of Houston in the early 1900s; organized the Kirby Petroleum Company in 1920; and served as president of various industry associations over the course of his career.  Kirby was also twice elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

In 1933, personal bankruptcy forced him to cede control of his lumber company and the Kirby Petroleum Company, but he maintained his position as chairman on the boards of both.  Kirby died on November 9, 1940.  The 626-acre John Kirby State Forest in southeast Texas, the town of Kirbyville in Jasper County, and the seven-mile thoroughfare Kirby Drive in Houston all bear his name.


Kirby, John Henry, Handbook of Texas Online

Biography of John Henry Kirby, Texas Transportation Online (from Johnson, Frank W., A History of Texas and Texans, Chicago: American Historical Association, 1914)

Great Citizens - John Henry Kirby, Houston History

Note Author: Paul Slavin

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