by Archie P. McDonald
familiar with Beaumont in the 1930s will remember the familiar barn-red buildings
that lined both sides of Gulf Street where it paralleled the Atchison, Topeka,
and Santa Fe Rail lines. They may also remember the company hospital, commissary,
and other facilities of the Kirby Lumber Company, a major harvester of East Texas
timber during the first half of the twentieth-century.|
John Henry Kirby,
founder of a firm that eventually operated sawmills in the heart of the pineywoods
and controlled 300,000 acres of timberland, was a native of Tyler County. Kirby
was born in 1860 and educated in local schools. A patron, Samuel Bronson Cooper,
an attorney and state senator, arranged Kirby’s appointment as calendar clerk
of the Texas senate in 1882. Kirby practiced law for a time before beginning various
businesses, including the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railway, later sold to
the Santa Fe line, the Houston Oil Company, and of course the Kirby Lumber Company.
He was also a founder of the Southern Pine Association, a prominent regional trade
association, and served five terms as its president.
Kirby became the
icon of an East Texas timber baron. His company operated as many as thirteen mills
in various locations, such as Kirbyville, named for the company’s founder, and
Silsbee, named for a business associate and investor from Boston, Nathaniel D.
Silsbee. They also owned the rail lines that hauled finished lumber to market.
Admirers cite Kirby’s generous provision of company housing, company store-commissary
services, even medical care for employees as evidence that he was a benevolent
employee. They claim that Kirby’s scornful attitude toward labor unions was owed
to his belief that they were an unnatural and unnecessary obstacle between employer
and satisfied employees.
Workers in Kirby’s mills often had a different
view—that company services primarily served as a way for it to reclaim, and profit
from, wages expended for work in the mill; that the system effectively bound them
to a specific workplace, since Kirby owned most of the mills in the region where
Kirby’s quarrelsome nature led to many squabbles with business
associates and eventually to the bankruptcy of his various companies, but he remained
a major player in the East Texas lumber industry until his death in 1940. His
massive wooden desk furniture is on display in the Arthur Temple College of Forestry
Building on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University.
| © Archie
20 , 2004 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association.
Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books