Joseph Alexander (Jodie) Kemp, entrepreneur and investor, was born to William T. and Emma F. (Stinnett) Kemp in Clifton, Texas, on July 31, 1861. He graduated from Clifton High School in 1878 and took over operation of his father's general store. After two years he sold his interest in the business at a profit to a partner. Kemp moved to Wichita Falls in 1883. He established a small wholesale and retail business that furnished supplies for the Indian reservation at nearby Fort Sill in the Indian Territory and for area residents and ranchers. He sold the business in 1887 and in 1890 established the J. A. Kemp Wholesale Grocery Company, which soon opened branch stores in a number of West Texas communities. Kemp's business grew until it did over $1 million worth of business annually and became the cornerstone of the development of Wichita Falls as a trade center. In late 1903 he sold controlling interest in the company but retained the title of vice president.
Kemp served as president of the City National Bank from 1891 through 1914. In 1894 he chartered the Wichita Falls Railway Company and established himself as president. After the sale of $20,000 worth of stock and $250,000 in bonds, construction began to connect Wichita Falls with the tracks of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad at Henrietta in Clay County. When the line was completed in May 1895, MK&T officials followed through on their pledge to Kemp to construct a station, a roundhouse, offices, and three switching tracks in Wichita Falls. In addition, they agreed to lease the new line's rails, provide the necessary rolling stock, and operate the Wichita Falls Railway on a profit-sharing basis. After this initial success, Kemp, often working with his brother-in-law Frank Kell, embarked on an ambitious program of railroad promotion that eventually established Wichita Falls as a rail center. Kemp chartered the Wichita Falls and Northwest Railway Company of Texas in September 1906 and constructed a rail line into the grain-producing region of Oklahoma. He also organized two other rail companies-the Wichita Falls and Southern, which connected Wichita Falls with the coal fields around New Castle, and the Wichita Falls and Wellington, which ran between Wichita Falls and Wellington by way of various stations on the Wichita Falls and Northern Railroad through Oklahoma. Kemp served as president of each of these rail companies. In 1911 the MK&T purchased all Kemp's rail lines.
Kemp and two partners established the K-M-A Oil Company in 1918 to capitalize on the county's oil boom. Kemp was a major shareholder and vice president of the Texhoma Oil and Refining Company, which became a $6 million corporation. His Wichita Falls Traction Company established an electric rail line in 1910. Kemp founded and served as president of the Wichita Falls Glass Company and the Wichita Bottle Manufacturing Company. He also founded the Wichita Motor Truck Company, which manufactured and sold Wichita trucks throughout the United States and Canada during the years around World War I. These activities, combined with his efforts at railroad construction, provided numerous jobs and helped establish Wichita Falls as a manufacturing center.
Kemp served on the Wichita Falls school board from 1883 through 1885. Two years after his arrival he was appointed county treasurer, a post to which he was subsequently elected for two consecutive terms. In 1915 he constructed a model dairy barn and introduced Guernsey cattle to the area as an example to other dairymen. In 1917 he and his wife donated a library building and books to the city of Wichita Falls.
In 1887 Kemp wanted to issue bonds to finance the construction of a dam on Holliday Creek, south of Wichita Falls, to form a reservoir. The state Constitution of 1876, however, prohibited such bond issues. When lobbying trips to Austin failed to secure enough support for the necessary constitutional amendment, Kemp organized the Lake Wichita Irrigation and Water Company, which privately financed the construction of a dam and a reservoir. The project was completed in 1901 at a cost of $175,000. Kemp's corporation sold water to Wichita Falls and the surrounding area. By the 1920s an number of recreational facilities had been constructed around the lake, which became an area resort.
Kemp continued to work for a constitutional amendment allowing the sale of municipal bonds to finance the construction of irrigation systems. After thirty-six years of speaking publicly, chairing groups, and making numerous trips to Austin and Washington, D.C., he was successful with the passage of Section 59 of Article 16. A later amendment to Senate Bill 267 passed in 1923 that permitted counties to issue bonds for the improvement of rivers, creeks, and streams to prevent overflow and for all necessary drainage purposes. Eventually, more than $4 million was spent to construct two dams on the Wichita River to irrigate and control floods in the area. Lake Kemp in Baylor County was named for Kemp.
Kemp married Flora Anderson in 1882; they raised five children. He was a Mason and served on the University of Texas board of regents from 1917 through 1921. He died in Austin on November 16, 1930, and was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Wichita Falls.