John Henry Kirby, primarily known as a lumberman and East Texas timberland owner, son of John Thomas and Sarah (Payne) Kirby, was born on a farm near Peach Tree Village, Tyler County, on November 16, 1860. His mother taught him to read and write. His formal education was limited to intermittent sessions at Tyler County's rural schools and less than one semester at Southwestern University, Georgetown. Through the influence of state senator Samuel Bronson Cooper, with whom he studied law, Kirby received an appointment as calendar clerk of the Texas Senate in 1882 and served through the summer of 1884. He married Lelia Stewart of Woodville in November 1883 and was admitted to the bar in the fall of 1885. After four years of practicing law in Woodville and after the birth of his daughter, Bessie May, Kirby moved to Houston, where he lived for the rest of his life.
From 1887, when at Cooper's recommendation a group of Boston investors engaged Kirby's legal services, until his bankruptcy in 1933, Kirby's business career wildly fluctuated. The Texas and Louisiana Land and Lumber Company and the Texas Pine Land Association, formed with his Boston associates to speculate in East Texas timberlands, provided Kirby with a small fortune. Those successes led him, in company with Bostonians Nathaniel D. Silsbee and Ellington Pratt, into the building of the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railway in 1896. The profitable sale of the railroad to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe nearly coincided with the organization by Kirby and Patrick Calhoun in 1901 of the Houston Oil Company of Texas and the Kirby Lumber Company. Mutual distrust and charges of misrepresentation by Kirby and Calhoun led to receivership for both companies and prolonged litigation. Nonetheless, at one time the Kirby Lumber Company controlled more than 300,000 acres of East Texas pinelands and operated thirteen sawmills.
Kirby was a founder and five-time president of the Southern Pine Association, served two terms as president of the National Lumber Manufacturers' Association (1917–21), and functioned briefly during World War I as southern lumber director of the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation. He also served two terms in the Texas legislature and was a delegate to the 1916 Democratic national convention.
He shared the conviction of many late nineteenth and early twentieth century entrepreneurs that power naturally followed wealth, and he guarded against any social or political force that threatened the prerogatives of wealth. A life-long Democrat, except for a brief period in the 1920s, Kirby denounced labor movements as socialistic. He was a paternalistic, rigorous, but often generous employer, who considered labor unions anathema because he believed they inflamed the passion of otherwise contented and relatively prosperous workers. Personally convinced that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal would destroy the very fabric of American life, Kirby cofounded the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution and contributed his money and energies to other anti-New Deal organizations. Financial bankruptcy in 1933 ended his active control of his lumber company and of the Kirby Petroleum Company, which he had organized in 1920, although he continued to serve as chairman of the boards of both companies until his death, on November 9, 1940. See also LUMBER INDUSTRY.