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  Texas Big Thicket - Silsbee TX - History

Silsbee History

Houstonian founds Silsbee because of natural resources

Story has it in the year 1893 a young Houstonian named John Henry Kirby came to East Texas with a vision and dream of capitalizing on the areas greatest resource. That resource being timber. Kirby was no stranger to the Piney Woods of East Texas since his birth place was Woodville. He wasted no time in organizing a group of investors to help accomplish this dream.

One of the investors was a Boston, Massachusetts lawyer by the name of Nathaniel D. Silsbee. Kirby and Silsbee's first major obstacle was there were no railroads in the Eastern part of Hardin County. With this in mind the two began the construction of the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railroad from the city of Beaumont to be completed at the city of San Augustine. After the completion of the railroad Kirby sold it to the Santa Fe Railroad Company. Santa Fe's most Eastern terminal at the time was Cleveland located in Liberty County. After acquiring the Kirby railroad, Santa Fe extended its line from Cleveland to the new mill town in East Texas. It was this new location that Kirby would name Silsbee, after his companion Nathaniel Silsbee.

In 1900, Kirby established the Kirby Lumber Company. It was this lumber company that would soon become the backbone for the development of the town of Silsbee.

With the ever growing populations came the need for more housing in the Silsbee area. In a joint effort the Santa Fe Co. and John Henry Kirby organized a company called the Santa Fe Townsite Co. with Kirby serving as president. It was this company that would begin building new employee housing along what is now North Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Streets in Silsbee. All of the houses were built pretty much the same. They had no electricity nor running water in the homes, but they beat sleeping under the stars. These homes would eventually be called the Kirby Homes.

As the timber and railroad industry grew around Silsbee so did the numerous small businesses that sprang up. One of the pioneer businessmen in Silsbee was J.N. Collier, who owned and operated a merchandise store with a motto of, "We Handle Everything." With the growing community it soon became evident the town had need of its own bank. In 1906 Collier, N.A. Cravens and others established the Silsbee State bank. In the 1920's the Britton-Cravens Lumber company was formed and began selling lumber for the development of new homes and businesses in the Silsbee area.

Today the company still holds its own during these franchised times. The company is still owned and operated by family members of the pioneers (Eddie and Mona Britton Plunk). The 1920s saw the start of another thriving business in Silsbee, Slavik's Grocery and Bakery. A young Czechoslovakian emigrant named Nickolas Slavik started his bakery business out of his home from the Woodrow community of Silsbee. Slavik also worked for the Kirby Sawmill stacking lumber for the sum of a dollar a day. His employment at the mill allowed him to hand pick the lumber he would use to eventually build his new store uptown. The Slaviks would go on to survive the Great Depression, World War II and a host of trying times to remain in business for some 62 years.

As the businesses around town grew, so did the continued harvest of timber. Along with this came what was commonly known as cut over land. This meaning all the timber was harvested and the land was left clean. With so much cleared land at hand an idea was born by unknown persons to plant Satsuma orange trees on the barren ground. It was from these numerous orange orchards that Silsbee would be nicknamed the Satsuma Valley. The only remnant of this time is the Silsbee High School's annual called the Satsuma and the school's annual contest of Miss Satsuma. The orchards continued on until the big freeze of 1929.

By the mid 1930s the citizens of Silsbee decided to incorporate the city. Along with incorporation came new rules and laws. Much of this developed due to hogs and livestock roaming the city streets.

As the 1930s dwindled, along came the 1940s. Things didn't change much in Silsbee in the '40s, but with World War II, Silsbee, like a lot of other small towns gave in a large way to the good Ol' U.S.A. with its share of young men and women.

With World War II proving the grounds of technology, also came new technology to the timber industry. By 1955 technology truly came to the timber world when the Kirby Lumber Company put into operation the world's largest automated Southern Pine Mill. In 1960 Silsbee was at a growth level of 6,200 people. The town had some six public schools, a host of businesses and churches. Silsbee still prospered through the 1970s where the population exceeded the 7,000 mark.

It was not until the 1980s Silsbee would see its greatest loss of population with the large cutback of work forec at the Kirby Mill. Many families relocated with other jobs while others chose to stay in Silsbee and commute to the surrounding cities and towns for employment.

Although there were tough times in teh 1980s for Silsbee, the city and its people have held on and made it through the 1990s. Today the mill is back in operation now under Louisiana Pacific. Many citizens are also employed by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Silsbee Independent School District, South Hampton Refinery and the Temple-Inland Mill in nearby Evadale.

The community has held onto its small town beliefs, but also looks to the future for progress. An Economic Development Corporation was formed a few years ago to find ways to bring more jobs, poeple and funds into the city. Programs such as the Silsbee Little Theater, the Performing and Visual Arts Council for students, the Library Festival and Christmas In The Big Thicket have kept the closeness of the small town atmosphere intact along with making Silsbee a unique part of Southeast Texas.

Contributed by The Silsbee Bee

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