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Family history chronicles the life and contributions of St. Louis industrialist William K. Bixby

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2012 - A new family history of 20th-century St. Louis industrialist William Keeney Bixby details his life and philanthropic legacy that lives on in the city's cultural institutions, including the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum and Washington University.

"Passionate Pursuits: William Keeney Bixby; Industrialist, Collector, Philanthropist, Traveler,” (Softcover, $30) was written and published by his granddaughter, Sally Bixby Defty, a veteran journalist who in 1965 joined the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she worked as a reporter and editor for 30 years.

Defty traces her grandfather’s meteoric business career after he graduated from high school in Adrian, Mich., starting with his move in 1874 to Palestine, Texas, to work as a railroad baggage handler. By age 31, he had risen through the ranks of the railroad industry to run Missouri Car and Foundry Co., in St. Louis. At 42, he was president of the American Car and Foundry Co., a corporation formed by 13 companies that built railroad cars, including Missouri Car.

Bixby was a self-made millionaire in the thriving city of St. Louis, then the fourth-largest in the nation, Defty points out. And, like other industrialists who achieved success at the turn of the 20th century, Bixby established himself as a civic leader.

"He lived very well. He had big houses,” she noted. "But he was also a philanthropist.”

Among Bixby’s contributions:

  • He was president of the Missouri Historical Society, donating hundreds of important manuscripts to the society, now known as the Missouri History Museum. His gifts include the extensive Thomas Jefferson collection. (These days, the restaurant at the museum is named for him.)
  • He headed the Fine Arts Commission for the 1904 World’s Fair and helped establish the St. Louis Art Museum.
  • He served on the board of directors of Washington University, where Bixby Hall in the College and Graduate School of Art bears his name. He worked with Robert S. Brookings to rebuild the School of Medicine, and helped to establish the Bixby Chair of Surgery.

In an editorial published after his death in 1931, The New York Times praised Bixby as a "lover of the choicest things of the human mind and human skill, and ever sharing them with others.”;

Bixby, who retired at 49, turned his attention to world travel and to his growing collections of art and rare historic books and manuscripts. He was influenced in these passions by his friend Charles Lang Freer, a rail car manufacturer who lived in Detroit, Defty writes. Freer donated his extensive art collection to the American public -- the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

"The best thing about Grandpa to me was his insatiable curiosity,’’ Defty said, adding that men like Bixby, Freer and Brookings were not college graduates but were driven by an intellectual curiosity to explore and learn.

"What was in the water or in the air around the turn of the [20th] century that people not only aimed high and did spectacularly well, but they had such curiosity,’’ she said.

Defty’s telling of the life of her "Grandpa Bixby” is based on her archival research in Washington, New York, Boston and St. Louis, including 33 boxes of his papers at the Missouri History Museum. But it is in her gentle, lyrical prose that the story of William K. Bixby comes to life.

She writes of her grandmother, Lillian Tuttle, arriving at the rail station in Palestine with a paper bag of butternuts that spilled onto the platform -- and how Will Bixby, a young baggage clerk, helped her pick them up. She describes how her grandfather and William P. McMillan, then the chairman of the board of American Car, put up their own homes and personal belongings as collateral to save their company during a financial crisis. The ordeal would have lasting implications on Bixby’s health.

Defty included a section on Bixby's world travels and how it impacted his thinking. For example, after a visit to Asia where he met with Chinese scholars, Bixby was convinced that it was wrong to send Christian missionaries to convert people who lived by Confucian philosophy, so he stopped contributing to foreign missions.

She also discusses Bixby’s children, including her Uncle Harold Bixby, who was a backer of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight.

Defty, 80, left the Post-Dispatch in 1995 and lived in Berlin, Germany, until 2007 to be near her grandchildren. She now makes her home in Bolton Landing, N.Y., where her grandfather built an impressive summer home on Lake George in 1902. Known as “The Big House,” nearly 300 Bixby descendants still vacation at the white mansion that resembles the Chatillon-Demenil House in St. Louis.

"Bolton Landing is so little it’s not even incorporated; it’s a hamlet,’’ she said. "It is beautiful, and the summers are much too busy and the winter is just so gorgeous because the snow falls and it’s constantly replenished. And it stays white and beautiful well into March. It’s really peaceful and quiet, and I like the contrast between summer -- because there are a lot of people who just come here for the summer like my grandfather did -- and winter when it’s just us natives.”

Defty said that she was inspired to write the biography after a discussion with young family members.

"I realized they didn’t know anything about Grandpa Bixby beyond that big portrait hanging in the hall. That was sort of an impetus,” she said.

She had also learned about collections of her grandfather’s papers at various archives.

Bixby’s funeral was held at his St. Louis home at 26 Portland Place in the Central West End, an event attended by 400 people, including 180 honorary pallbearers. He was interred at the family mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

At the peak of his career, in 1904, Bixby purchased what was then the largest home in the city, a magnificent 45-room Victorian mansion at Lindell and Kingshighway that had been built in 1880 by John W. Kauffman, a retired grain dealer. It is now the site of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.

The first home Bixby built in St. Louis in 1893 still stands at 13 Portland Place.

"I like that house on Portland Place,’’ Defty said. "I didn’t realize until I was writing the book that his house didn’t look like anybody else’s. It was white. The only white house on Portland and Westmoreland. And, he did 'The Big House' in snow white. He liked to stand out, clearly.”

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