James L. Allhands, contractor and writer, was born on September 23, 1879, in Iroquois County, Illinois, the son of Erastus J. and Elizabeth (Wilkins) Allhands. The family moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1890. Although his public education ended in the fifth grade, Allhands took a stenographic course at a Wichita business college and completed a privately taught telegraphy course. In 1897 he became a railroad clerk and worked for railroads in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, and the Indian Territory.
He went to work for the Johnston Brothers Construction Company of St. Elmo, Illinois, in 1900. As a troubleshooter for the company he made his first trip to Texas in 1903 to determine the best route for a projected railroad from Houston to Brownsville. In 1907 he joined P. M. Johnston to establish the P. M. Johnston, Son and Allhands Company, also in St. Elmo. Their business built a number of railroads in Texas, including the Stamford and Northwestern and the Port O'Connor branch of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico line. After the termination of the company in 1911 Allhands did construction work for various railroad companies. Later he became associated with J. H. Hedges and J. H. Jarrett in forming the Allhands-Hedges Construction Company in Springfield, Missouri. As president of the company Allhands joined with other contractors to found the Associated General Contractors of America, an organization that promoted legislation favorable to the construction industry.
When the Allhands-Hedges Construction Company was dissolved in 1919 Allhands formed a partnership with R. E. Davis. Their company engaged in all types of construction throughout Texas and several other states; they built railroads and highways, dug irrigation canals, and erected dams. The partnership ended in 1939, and Allhands joined Jesse J. Briley to found Allhands and Briley, a construction company that built highways and railroads in the state until 1967. He acquired considerable real estate in Dallas and invested in oil exploration with moderate success. In Dallas he served on the board of the Richmond Freeman Memorial Clinic and helped establish the Children's Medical Center as well as the Presbyterian Hospital. He was a member of the Dallas Citizens Council, the Texas Geographic Society, and the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army.
Allhands was a prolific writer whose first book, Gringo Builders, was published in 1931. He followed it with Boll Weevil (1946), Uriah Lott (1949), Tools of the Earth Movers (1951), Railroads to the Rio (1960), and an autobiography, Looking Back over 98 Years (1978), the best source of information about his life.
He married Reba E. Warren in 1933. The marriage ended with her death in 1951, and in 1953 he married Margareth C. Welton. Allhands died on January 6, 1978, and was buried in Dallas.