Silsbee Bee

Kirby Hill House
offers a look at grand old days


The Kirby-Hill House, named after the two principal occupants, James Lafayette Kirby and Austin Mae Hill Sr. was built in 1902. It is located at 210 Main Street in Kountze, one blocks north of the Hardin County Courthouse square.

The home was built by Frank T. Smith, master architect and builder from Beaumont, whose credits include several major buildings in the business district of Beaumont, two of which are the Gilbert Building and the Alamo Building.

Smith built the home for James L. Kirby, brother to John Henry Kirby, founder of the Kirby Lumber Company empire, which dominated the economy of Hardin County and Southeast Texas for one hundred years.

The home is located in the original town site of Kountze on eight city lots, consisting of about two and three-tenths acres of land. The curved wrap-around front walls of the upper and lower porches are of tongue and groove heart pine and the 48 impressive Victorian Style Columns on both porches are made of cypress.

The Kirby-Hill House is a two-story, colonial revival style home and is an exceptional example of the Neo-classical style from the Colonial revival period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of the lumber used in the construction of the home came from the Kirby mills. Most of the flooring in the house is of tongue and groove heart pine. The double front doors of the home have the original beveled glass panes and the full length window screens, originally made of bronze, open out onto the porches on hinges, so that one could step through the windows onto the porches from each room in the house. The front door and windows were built with large transoms above each one to allow the prevailing wind to cool the entire house.

Four of the rooms have a distinctive fireplace, each with a different styled beveled mirror.

The beautiful winding staircase connecting the upper and lower full-length hallways is one of the most impressive parts of the house and is made of heart pine. It was built in Georgia specially for this home and was made in three sections and shipped in Kountze. When it first arrived, there were some problems because no one knew how to correctly install the staircase. The staircase was later installed by John R. Bevil, a local attorney.

The home was originally lighted by carbide gas lamps and the two bathrooms had hot and cold running water supplied by a wood burning heater connected to the cook stove in the kitchen.

A close look at the top of the house discloses a 10 x 10 foot flat surface where the cypress balustrade encircled the unique widow's walk. The balustrade was removed several years ago during a hurricane season and stored in the attic of the house, awaiting restoration. The balustrade has been restored, but it is so difficult to reach that the curator calls it the crow’s nest.

The home, built in the once affluent section of town, was built of the finest materials that money could buy at the time and the workmanship was the best that could be obtained. The home still retains a high degree of architectural and historic integrity, and it is still in its original condition. It is the only one of its kind in Hardin County, and work is under way to restore it to the original condition.

James Kirby, the first owner, lived in the home from 1902 until his death in 1922 until his wife Martha died in 1907. He married a woman 42 years younger than he, and he had more children. He sold the house to his grown daughter Lucy Kirby Hill. James died in 1922. One of his sons was still alive until 2003.

Lucy Kirby married Austin Mae Hill in 1892 and lived in the home until her death in 1957. Their son, Austin Mae Hill Jr., married Esta Lois Pye in 1922 and both lived in the home most of their lives. Their daughter, Autie Lois, was born in 1923 and lived in the home until she and her mother moved out in 1990.. Esta died in 1991. Autie Lois sold the antique furniture of the stately home because of illness and financial reasons. She eventually sold the home to the Kountze Council of the Hardin County Arts and Education Foundation just prior to her death. The goal of the council is to purchase back the original furniture and restore this historic home to its original state.

The history of the Kirby-Hill families is interwoven in the early history of Hardin County and even the State of Texas. Their history in Southeast Texas includes the lumber, oil and railroad industries. It also includes Texas Revolution heroes. The father of Austin Hill Sr., T.A.W. Hill, was a member of Terry's Rangers, and his great-grandfather, Dr. William P. Smith, was appointed surgeon general under Stephen F. Austin during the Texas Revolution. Lucy Kirby Hill was a charter member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

The Kirby-Hill House represents a period of time in the history of the community when owners of large business ventures in the area were attempting to enhance the arts, entertainment, educational and social lives in the newly named seat of government of Hardin County. The home was the center of gala social events. For many an invitation to the Kirby-Hill Home was a mark of acceptance into Southeast Texas high society.

Volunteers man the tours of the home and are currently working on restoring the house to its original splendor. An average tour at the home will take visitors back to the golden time in the early part of the century. And a visit to the home is not complete without a look at the crape myrtle tree in the front yard, registered as the state's largest. Just last month the home received a marker in the State Historical Register.

The Kirby-Hill House is open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.; The museum office has Hardin County tourism information.

Contributed by The Silsbee Bee

Things to See and Do In Hardin County


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