The William Keeney Bixby Papers
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Biographical / Historical Note

William Keeney Bixby, 1857-1931, was born in Adrian, Michigan, the son of Alonzo Bixby, a lawyer native to Batavia, New York. His father's interest in the South seems to have been a determining factor in his career. The senior Bixby, Adrian's prosecuting attorney, had lived in Texas and fought with the Texas Rangers at Reseca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. He became intensely Southern in his sympathies and was considered a “copperhead” during the Civil War.

In 1875, after graduation from high school, William Bixby went armed with a letter from Jefferson Davis to the Governor of Texas, a Confederate veteran, who got the sixteen-year-old a job as night watchman and baggageman for the International Great Northern Railroad at Palestine, Texas. An Algerish touch to this story is the part played by the roughly dressed old man who frequently dropped around at night and pestered the boy with apparently idle questions about railroading. Because the boy was courteous and intelligent, at the end of a year the old man revealed himself as H. M. Hoxie, president of the railroad. The result was promotion to the post of general baggage agent in San Antonio for young Bixby. Now he could afford to marry Lillian Tuttle who was visiting her brother in San Antonio, from Bolton, New York. Mr. Hoxie's benign influence was not over. When he became president of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the couple moved with him to St. Louis, where Bixby became printing and stationery buyer for all the Gould lines.

After several years in St. Louis, William McMillan, president of the Missouri Car and Foundry Company, offered the rapidly rising young man a still better job. Within the now-traditional year he again attracted signal attention to himself. His employers had made a ruinous contract for the purchase of pig iron and by his direct honesty Bixby renegotiated the contract, making a long-range, profitable ally for his company. At the age of thirty-one he became vice-president and general manager.

Soon the company became such a large factor in freight-car building that it found it advantageous to merge with the Peninsular Car Company, the first step in a series of mergers out of which came the American Car and Foundry Company, of which Bixby became President, and soon thereafter was elected chairman of the board. At the age of forty-eight, in 1905, he retired.

His aesthetic appreciation had always been keen and he was a voracious reader, reading books by the paragraph and the page rather than the sentence. He now devoted himself to collecting books, autographs, and paintings, with the same avidity with which he had pursued his business career.

Inevitably he accumulated duplicates of his books, and, in combination with Henry E. Huntington, he disposed of these by auction in 1916 and 1917. In 1918 he sold his English and American autographs to Huntington. Hardly slowed down, he started collecting again in 1920 and in 1929 sold the new collection to Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach.

Among his better-known treasures were the Mary Wollstonecraft copy of Queen Mab, the manuscripts of Burns's To Mary in Heaven, Kipling's Recessional, Thoreau's Walden, AndrÉ's Journal, Burr's Journal, Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth, Shelley's Note-Books, Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture.

His art collection was no less impressive. It included a fine Rembrandt, several paintings by Corot, a Franz Hals, and a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

Mr. Bixby was a quiet but vigorous supporter of educational and charitable foundations in St. Louis, Washington University being a particular beneficiary. He was also generous in making available to scholarship his manuscript material. Thus the Bibliophile Society reproduced twenty-eight manuscripts, the Franklin Club of St. Louis reproduced two, the Society of Dofobs of Chicago two, and the Burns Club of St. Louis one. At Christmas he frequently distributed facsimiles of his manuscripts to his friends. The considerable rare book collection at Washington University had its basis in gifts from Mr. Bixby.

After his retirement as Chairman of the Board of the American Car and Foundary Company, Mr. Bixby's life seems to have been fuller than ever. He was a very active director of the St. Louis Union Trust Company. He served for a while as president of the Laclede Gas Company of St. Louis and later, in 1909, as receiver of the Wabash Railroad. From June 1928 to June 1930 he was president of the Washington University Corporation in St. Louis. While president of the City Art Museum he had a large part in persuading the city of St. Louis to set aside a portion of each tax dollar for support of the Museum. When president of the Missouri Historical Society he gave that organization Thomas Jefferson letters, the original Burr-Hamilton correspondence, Eugene Field letters, autograph material relating to the activities of Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. He was a director of the St. Louis Public Library, an original incorporator of the American Red Cross, vice-president of the American Federation of Art, and a director of the National Gallery of Art. He spent part of his time in foreign travel, which included big-game hunting in Africa and lacquer and jade hunting in China. However, most of his time and energy were devoted to the promotion of art, education and literature.

Howard S. Mott