Joseph Kurth, Sr., lumberman and civic, business, and political leader, son of Johann Adam and Martha (Brenig) Kurth, was born in Endenich, near Bonn, Westphalia, on July 3, 1857, and baptized Simon Joseph Kurth. His family were Rhinelanders who opposed the Prussian takeover of the province in the 1860s. In 1877 he left home, presumedly to avoid military service, although some relatives credit his flight to a student riot in Bonn and the threat of arrest. He immigrated to the United States through Galveston in 1878. There he worked in a sawmill, became proficient at various jobs, and learned practical English. He worked in several Central Texas towns including Seguin, Willis, and Hartley, where he met and married Hattie Martin Glenn in 1882. The couple had five sons, four of whom participated in the family enterprises.
Kurth bought a small sawmill, which he named Kurth Station, in Polk County on the Houston, East and West Texas Railway. Later, in 1888, he purchased a larger mill at Keltys, near Lufkin. Finding that he needed additional operating capital, he entered a partnership with Simon W. Henderson, a Corrigan merchant, and in 1890 the two organized a corporation with Sam Wiener (whose brother Eli later became a partner) under the name of Angelina County Lumber Company. Kurth was president. For the next dozen years Kurth and the Wieners struggled to build this company into a sound and profitable operation, enduring war, recessions, fires, and other disasters. By 1912 Angelina County Lumber had grown into a million-dollar corporation with timber reserves totaling as much as 160,000 acres. In 1900 the company had chartered its tram road as a common carrier under the name Angelina and Neches River Railroad and extended it to Chireno in Nacogdoches County. Kurth also became a substantial stockholder and director of the Lufkin National Bank, the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company, and the Lufkin Light Company.
By 1900 he had become an American citizen and was active in state Republican politics. He campaigned in turn for William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, and was recognized as a party leader, a person to be consulted about federal appointments in East Texas. He served as a member of the state Republican executive committee, chairman of the Angelina County Republican party, a delegate to the Republican national convention, and a presidential elector. In 1924 he accepted his party's nomination for lieutenant governor as the running mate of Dr. George C. Butte; they were badly defeated by Democrats Miriam Ferguson and Barry Miller. Kurth did, however, carry his home county, which normally voted strongly Democratic.
Though raised Catholic, Kurth became a Methodist after his marriage. He largely funded the construction of the Methodist church at Keltys and contributed heavily to Southwestern University at Georgetown. He also gave land for a new public school in Lufkin and served for many years as a trustee of the local school district. In his will he provided for a library, subsequently known as the Kurth Memorial Library, for the city of Lufkin. He died on June 16, 1930, and was buried in Lufkin.