- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

KIRBYVILLE, Texas (AP) - John Henry Kirby, the prototypical East Texas timber baron, made a whale of a lot of money in the dense Piney Woods that once surrounded this little East Texas town that bears his name.

In the early years of the 20th century, he controlled more than 300,000 acres of timberland, operated as many as 13 lumber mills and five logging camps, and had more than 16,000 people working for him. He also owned the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railway, the line that hauled the finished pine lumber to market. Kirby’s Houston Oil Company held the mineral, timber and surface rights to a million acres in Southeast Texas.

Kirby’s pine forests were good to the Manchac family, as well, give or take a few million dollars. Pat Manchac, a congenial fellow with a cache of East Texas tales to tell, was born 71 years ago in nearby Call, then a company town larger than Kirbyville and now a ghost town. His folks ran a mom-and-pop grocery store, but with 19 children in the family, they needed to supplement their income to make sure everybody got fed. (The women of Call, I learned this week, are proud to call themselves Call girls.)

The Manchacs were bootleggers. “We’d come in at night and wrap bottles of whiskey in tow sacks and take them out in the woods to hide ‘em,” Pat Manchac recalled. “‘Hide it in the dark, find it in the dark,’ that was our motto. I knew how to hide ‘em so you’d walk right over ‘em and never know they were there.”

The feds would raid the family operation occasionally, but the Newton County sheriff would almost always call ahead of time with a warning. “I remember the feds would line all of us up against a wall of the house, and we couldn’t move ‘til they left,” Manchac told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1QC9bAx). “I thought it was exciting.”

Manchac has lived in and around Kirbyville all his life. A retired barber and high school industrial arts teacher, he was a Kirbyville Wildcats football star in the early ‘60s and had a couple of scholarship offers but chose to go to barber college instead.

Kirby, also known as “Prince of the Pines,” moved to Houston in 1901, where he invested in real estate (in Houston and Dallas) and continued to run his lumber interests, his oil and gas company, and his railroad. He also served two terms in the Texas Legislature. A quarrelsome type who hated labor unions and FDR’s New Deal, he went broke during the Depression (“Once I built a railroad, I made it run. …”). He died in 1940 and is best known today for the perpetually traffic-clogged Houston street that bears his name.

Kirbyville, founded in 1895, had its own clogged streets in the early days. With a population of about 2,000 (then and now), it was a typical company town. Employees lived in Kirby Lumber Co. houses, relied on the company doctor and shopped in the company commissary with company scrip.

Although timber was pretty much cut over by the 1930s, the town prospered for another couple of decades as a market center for farming, poultry and dairy operations.

“You could not find a place to park on this street on Saturdays,” Manchac recalled as he stood on a mostly empty Main Street amid old buildings now abandoned and collapsing on themselves. Manchac pointed out where the drug store, a Dr Pepper plant, Lindsay’s Five & Dime, “Coon” Grimes’ pool hall, a grocery store, a lumber yard, a mule barn, Mixson’s Department Store, Sam’s Barber Shop, three auto dealers and the railroad depot (three passenger trains daily) used to be. He and other residents told me that local businesses succumbed to the Wal-Mart in nearby Jasper, but the town was struggling long before the retail behemoth moved in. It still struggles.

The town’s not giving up, two-term Mayor Frank George told me. George, 65, moved to Kirbyville in 1967 and was a longtime Borden’s milkman before becoming a partner in locally owned Jenny’s Fried Chicken in 1991. He started out part-time, coming in to cut up chicken after finishing his milk route. “I needed another job; I was making $90 a week,” he recalled, while I took notes in a booth over “two pieces, mixed, with french fries and a roll.”

The chicken is good, and so is business - so good, in fact, that George is building a larger restaurant. “The community has been good to us,” he said. “We’re the get-together place.”

The mayor’s municipal duties, on the other hand, are a challenge. “Hurricane Rita almost did our community in,” he said.

Instead of laying people off in the aftermath of the storm, the town reduced hours, which prompted the entire police department to quit. “Nobody got mad enough not to come back,” the mayor said, although the town still needs a city administrator, an economic development board and a website. It also needs a supermarket, a hospital, some kind of industry - “anything to create permanent, well-paying jobs.”

Retirees make up a large portion of the population, and with their property taxes frozen the city doesn’t have a lot to work with. The two largest employers are the school district, which has a good reputation, and the Jasper-Newton Electric Co-op, a mainstay of the community since its founding in 1943. “The co-op has kept the city going,” George said.

Kirbyville needs young people moving in. “Maybe not a million,” the mayor says, “but we’d take a thousand.”

It needs people who stay, young people and not so young who put down roots, who get involved. People like Vondol Bailey and Pat Manchac. Both are retired; both are busier than they’ve ever been. Bailey, a former school secretary who serves on the City Council, is secretary of the Magnolia Festival and president of the Kirbyville Heritage Society. She also runs the monthly country music show at the restored Palace Theater downtown.

“We’re proud of this little town,” she said. “We’re getting a Chinese restaurant and a lawn-mower racing track. It’s big. The guy who runs the car wash is putting it in.”

Manchac puts on big-time barbecues for charitable events, sells fireworks and volunteers at the Calaboose Museum. When I ran into him downtown, he was putting in redwood picnic tables and building a white picket fence for a pocket park where a building used to be.

On Halloween night of his long-ago senior year, Manchac and some buddies got in trouble for piling out of a pickup and hurling bottles of black ink and eggs at the city jail. They almost didn’t graduate the next spring because, once they got caught, the acid they used to clean the building drained onto the sidewalk and ate away the soles of DPS officers’ shoes, plus they charged $200 in paint to the school agriculture department.

Last year, 53 years after the Halloween prank, Manchac repainted the two-story jail, now the Calaboose Museum, and got his old buddies to help him organize the exhibits. “This is my place,” he said of the town.


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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