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Home » Jesse H. Jones’ impact on the Houston landscape
Texas History Minutes
Success in business is often a combination of timing, determination and imagination.
A Houston businessman, Jesse H. Jones, brought all of these qualities and an innate entrepreneurial spirit to build a fortune that changed the landscape of Texas’ largest city.
Jones became a giant in Houston’s business circles, overseeing some of the state’s largest and most influential companies. While Jones became one of the most important businessmen in Texas, he also became one of only a handful of Texans to ever serve in a presidential cabinet.
Jesse Holman Jones was born in Tennessee near the Kentucky state line in 1874. The family had farmed the land as successful tobacco farmers for several generations. However, his mother Laura died when he was 6 years old. When he was 9 years old, his father William moved the family to Dallas to join his uncle MT Jones in his successful lumber business. After making a tidy fortune of his own, Jones’ father soon brought the family back to Tennessee, where he expanded the farm and built a luxurious new home for his five children.
William Jones gave his three sons a small plot of land on the farm where they could grow their own tobacco and manage the profits as they pleased. Jesse, the youngest, worked hard on his three acre property but also proved to be quite adept at commerce and entered into a partnership where at the age of 14 he was allowed to run a small factory processing his partners’ tobacco. He proved so gifted that he dropped out of school.
By 1891, Jones returned to Dallas, eventually ending up in Hillsboro to work in his uncle’s lumber business, where he worked on keeping the accounts and collecting the lumberyard. He was soon transferred back to the company’s Dallas headquarters, where he became manager within six months. When his uncle died a few years later, Jones was appointed managing director of his lumber business.
Jones moved to Houston in 1898. Soon his already brilliant destiny accelerated. He founded the South Texas Lumber Company in 1902 and within a few years grew it into a million dollar company. He also began to get involved in real estate and construction. He was awarded a contract to build a major addition to the Bristol Hotel in 1906 and the contract to build the new Texaco headquarters. The Texaco Building became a 17-story building completed in 1915 and a dominant presence in downtown Houston.
In 1906, Jones acquired a 50% interest in the Houston Chronicle from founding editor Marcellus Foster. Jones and Foster grew the newspaper into one of the largest and most influential newspapers in Texas. Foster convinced Jones to build the Chronicle Building in 1908 as the new home for the growing magazine, which became another landmark in the growing downtown area.
By 1911, he bought the Rice Hotel from Rice University, demolished the old building, and built a new 13-story building by 1916. Already a millionaire himself, Jones continued to invest in new construction projects and new businesses.
Interested in expanding Houston’s reach as a port city, Jones led a 1911 bond election campaign to establish what became known as the Port of Houston Authority, to improve the city’s waterways, expand its port facilities, and launch What included became the Houston Ship Channel. Jones was asked to lead the board of the new organization, which rapidly increased shipping to the city and soon overtook Galveston as the most important port in Texas.
His business acumen and success earned him national respect. After President Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912, he offered Jones the new position of Secretary of Commerce. Though intrigued, Jones decided to stay in Houston and instead tend to his growing business interests.
He also became known for giving back to the community. Through the Houston Chronicle, he started the Goodfellows program, which helped underprivileged children in the city. During World War I, he gained new recognition for his efforts to raise money for the American Red Cross while American troops were fighting overseas.
Jones married Mary Gibbs in 1920 and married late in life. He never had children but helped raise one of his wife’s granddaughters.
The Houston Chronicle, meanwhile, continued to gain influence. In the 1920s he actively supported Foster’s editorial crusade against the Ku Klux Klan. When Foster retired in 1926, Jones bought his remaining half of the paper’s property and called himself publisher. Such was his influence that he was able to persuade Democratic Party leaders to hold the Democratic National Convention in Houston in 1928, the first time a major political party held its national nominating convention in Texas. And in 1930 Jones expanded into radio. He began broadcasting radio station KTRH from the Rice Hotel, where Jones’ penthouse suite had long been his primary residence.
Now in his late 50s, the challenges of the Great Depression would drive him to take on new roles in Washington, DC, where he would serve two Presidents.