Jesse H. Jones

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Jesse Jones
Jesse Holman Jones pers0174.jpg
9th United States Secretary of Commerce
In office
September 19, 1940 – March 1, 1945
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded by Harry Hopkins
Succeeded by Henry A. Wallace
Personal details
Born Jesse Holman Jones
(1874-04-05)April 5, 1874
Robertson County, Tennessee, U.S.
Died June 1, 1956(1956-06-01) (aged 82)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Mary Gibbs (m. 1920)

Jesse Holman Jones (April 5, 1874 – June 1, 1956) was a Democratic politician and entrepreneur from Houston, Texas. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce from 1940 to 1945.

Jones managed a tobacco factory at age 14, and at 19 he was put in charge of his uncle's lumberyards. Five years later, after his uncle, M. T. Jones, died, Jones moved to Houston to manage his uncle's estate and opened a lumberyard company, which grew quickly. During this period, Jesse opened his own business, the South Texas Lumber Company. He also began to expand into real estate, commercial building and banking.[1] His commercial building activities in Houston included mid-rise and skyscraper office buildings, hotels and apartments, and movie theaters. He constructed the Foster Building, home to the Houston Chronicle, in exchange for a fifty percent share in the newspaper, which he acquired control of in 1926.

His most important role was to head the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), (1932–1945), a federal agency originally created in the Herbert Hoover administration that played a major role in combating the Great Depression and financing industrial expansion during World War II.[2][3] Jones was in charge of spending US$50 billion, especially in financing railways and building munitions factories.[4] He served as the United States Secretary of Commerce from 1940–1945, a post he held concurrently with his chairmanship of the RFC. He was passed over for the vice presidential nomination in 1944 because Roosevelt thought he was too conservative for that role.

Family history and early life[edit]

Sudley Place in Tennessee, Jones's "boyhood home", now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jesse H. Jones descended from Welsh ancestors who made Virginia their first landing place in North America, sometime in the 1650s. After settling their briefly, they relocated to the Chowan River in North Carolina, remaining there for at least a century. In 1774, Eli Jones and one of his brothers, headed west, eventually deciding to an area now known as Robertson County, Tennessee. William, one of Eli's sons, established himself as a farmer there, and married a neighboring farmer's daughter, Laura Anna Holman. The farm was sufficient to provide for all of the needs of the family and grow tobacco for sale, partly from their own efforts, and partly from the work of enslaved persons. Jesse Holman Jones was born to William and Laura Jones on April 5, 1874, the fourth of five children.[5] Jesse's mother died on April 22, 1880, just after he had turned six. Nancy Jones Hurt, his aunt, moved in with the family along with her two sons. She was a "guide, physician, and clothes-maker of all the Jones children," and "a famous cook…." [6] Sudley Place was his "boyhood home".[7]

In 1883, the Jones family, including Aunt Nancy and seven children moved to Dallas, Texas, partly in order for William to join his brother Martin Tilton "M.T." Jones in his successful lumber enterprise. Several years earlier M.T. had resettled his family in Terrell, Texas after a stop in Illinois. Aunt Nancy remained in Dallas and enrolled the children in local public schools, while William moved to Terrell to manage the M.T. Jones Lumber Company and look after the firm's other lumberyards in northeast Texas. This allowed M.T. to move closer to his timberlands and other interests in southeast Texas. However, William only stayed for two years and returned with his large family to Robertson County, where he acquired a new farm to work. So Jesse was back in Tennessee at the age of twelve.[8]

Jesse had been a diligent worker as a boy, caring for the farm animals, and performing many common household chores. During the summers when his family had lived in Dallas—when he was a young teenager—he hacked out weeds, picked cotton, and herded cattle. He did not display the same diligence for school, and later, Jesse recalled many scoldings and punishments from his teachers.[9] His father challenged his two sons with a tobacco plot for each of them. He allowed each son to choose about close to three acres and provided them both with supplies. Each of them would be allowed to keep any profits after they repaid their store accounts. After the eighth grade, he quit school and applied some of his experience working with tobacco. William Jones not only grew tobacco, but also traded the crop, and he also joined a partnership, Jones, Holman and Armstrong, which processed tobacco. Then, out of school at the age of fourteen, Jesse was in the job market, and William put him in charge of one of the tobacco factories. Jesse was responsible for receiving (or sometimes rejecting), classifying, warehousing, and shipping tobacco. In addition, his name was on the company bank account, and he signed checks for the company's operations.[10]

At the age of seventeen, Jesse's family returned to Dallas. After several attempts to find a suitable job in Dallas and the surrounding region, Jesse started working in Hillsboro, Texas, at one of his uncle's lumberyards. He performed manual labor, but also served the office side of the business, such as bookkeeping and debt collection. Despite these varied duties, he earned the standard salary for a salesman: $40 per month. He requested a fifty percent raise, arguing that he worked day and night. His uncle refused. Jesse did not stay employed there much longer, and quit not long before the death of his father, William Jones. The will instructed that trustees manage the tobacco enterprise, while Jesse would assume control at age twenty-one. He also inherited about $2,000 in stock.[11]

Business activities[edit]

Timber and lumber[edit]

Quote from Jones at the Houston Chronicle headquarters (former Houston Post building)

Jesse and his brother had liquidated the tobacco inventory from their father's estate, and spent the proceeds on their sisters' homes. Jesse returned to Dallas and applied for a position with the M.T. Jones Lumber Company's yard on Main Street and St. Paul. However, he had experienced problems with the manager of the yard at Hillsboro, and that manager then worked at the big yard in downtown Dallas. His uncle M.T. refused to hire him, leading Jesse to wonder what the manager might have said about him. However, C.T. Harris, the general manager of the company decided to investigate the matter. Harris was familiar with Jesse's work, and had even on occasion, entrusted him to keep the books. Harris audited the books of the Hillsboro yard and concluded that the Hillsboro manager had committed fraud. He fired the manager and hired Jesse as bookkeeper for the big Dallas yard. Initially, Jesse earned a salary of $15 per week—more than he made at the Hillsboro yard. After just six months, Harris made Jesse the manager there, raising his salary to $100 per month. Harris made these decisions without consulting M.T., the owner of the company.[12] Jesse ran the Dallas yard profitably, even in the face of eight competitors in the local market. In 1895, with M.T. still critical of the Dallas operations, Jesse tendered his resignation. However, M.T. audited the books of the Dallas yard and found them to be in good order. M.T. asked Jesse to retract his resignation. Jesse replied that he would take his old job back for $150 per week and six percent of the profits. After sleeping on it, M.T. agreed to Jesse's terms.[13]

While Jesse was still managing a lumber yard in Dallas for M.T. Jones, he decided on a financial gambit while competing for the lumber trade related to the 1897 Texas State Fair. The association running the State Fair needed construction supplies for buildings and exhibits, but the lumber companies wanted personal guarantees from the directors. Jesse, sensing an opportunity, decided to stand out from his competitors: he extended credit to the State Fair Association, with only the backing of gate receipts. When M.T. found out about the terms of the loans and the full extent of Jesse's gamble, he began to investigate Jesse's activities and interrogated him about his decision. These loans were repaid quickly and the Dallas lumber yard profited from the play.[14]

Jones arrived in Houston in 1898, renting a room at the old Rice Hotel for $2.25 per night. M.T. Jones had died, and Jesse was one of the five executors of his estate. He was survived by his wife Louisa and three children. Jesse managed a large estate:[15]

He was now in charge of tens of thousands of acres of timberland spread over three east Texas counties and parts of Louisiana. The estate owned and operated sawmills and factories in Orange that had the daily capacity to turn hundreds of thousands of feet of raw timber into shingles, doors, windows sashes, and two-by-fours. The logistics was equally huge: felled trees had to moved to plants, and finished products had to be delivered to lumberyards located throughout the state and beyond. With assistance and advice from trustees, Jones bought, sold, and managed the land, expanding the M.T. Jones Lumber Company even further.

In 1902, Jones started the South Texas Lumber Company. He had money he had earned from selling investments in timber and some Spindletop deals for capital. He acquired the Reynolds Lumber Company, as well as many other lumberyards in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The company charter announced an intention to purchase raw goods (lumber), semi-finished goods (cross ties), and milled goods, such as blinds, doors, and sash.[16] According to his own recollection, he made about $1 million in profits when he sold controlling interest in the company, liquidating most of his interests in one saw mill and perhaps 20 or more lumberyards. Other than retaining a single lumberyard, he permanently left active management of the timber and lumber business in 1911 or 1912.[17]

Construction and real estate[edit]

Illustration of the Foster Building, aka Houston Chronicle Building (1913)

Jones commenced a flurry of building activity in 1908. He contracted to build an addition to the Bristol Hotel, committing $90,000 to the project, which would include a rooftop garden and dance floor. He also commissioned a ten-story building for the Texas Company (Texaco), and the company moved its headquarters to Houston.[18] The same year, he constructed a new plant for the rapidly growing Houston Chronicle in exchange for a half-interest in the company, which had been solely owned by Marcellus Foster.[19] The relationship between Jones and the Chronicle lasted the rest of his life. In 1926, Jones became the sole owner of the paper and named himself as publisher. In 1937, he transferred ownership of the paper to the newly established Houston Endowment Inc.[citation needed]

Jones started developing hotel properties in 1906 when he acquired the Bristol Hotel for $90,000. He literally doubled-down on his initial investment two years later when he made an addition to the Bristol, capping it with a rooftop garden deck for entertainment.[20] In 1911, Jones purchased the original five-story Rice Hotel from Rice University although the university retained the land on which it stood. He razed the original structures and constructed the present building, which he then leased from Rice.[21] The 17-story Rice Hotel opened on May 17, 1913 and was closed in 1977. From 1998 to 2014, this building was known as the Post Rice Lofts.[citation needed]

In the mid-1920s, Jones increased his construction and development activity. Two new buildings, the Kirby Theater and the Kirby Lumber Company Building went up on Main Street, while he built additions to the Rice Hotel and the Houston Electric Building. During the same period he started projects in Manhattan. The first was an apartment building on Fifth Avenue at 97th Street, followed by the Mayfair House (New York City) on Park Avenue at 67th Street. A third building at 200 Madison Avenue faced J.P. Morgan's home, with four floors leased to the first Marshall Field's store in New York City. Jones left also his mark on Fort Worth, building the Medical Arts Building (Fort Worth), and the Worth Hotel and Worth Theater.[22]


As a young man, Jones found opportunities to borrow money in order to establish credit. He borrowed in excess of his need, and kept the extra cash in a savings account.[23] In this manner, he gained larger lines of credit with banks in Dallas, Houston, and New York City.[citation needed]

However, at least two Houston bankers expressed concerns about his borrowing practices. By his own estimate, he had borrowed as much as $3 million. The test came with the Panic of 1907. One of the largest and oldest of Houston's banks, the T.W House Bank, failed amidst this economic recession. The bank had a $500,000 loan on its books in the name of Jesse Jones. Yet even during the bank panic, Jones was able to sell enough mortgage paper and draw on lines of credit to repay the loan. So he stood ready to make new investments after the worst of the recession ended.[24]

Sometime after 1908, Jones organized the Texas Trust Company. By 1912, he had become president of Houston's National Bank of Commerce. This bank later merged with Texas National Bank in 1964 to become the Texas National Bank of Commerce, renamed to Texas Commerce Bank which grew into a major regional financial institution. It became part of JP Morgan Chase & Co. in 2008.[1]

Political activities[edit]

Jesse Holman Jones
Jesse Jones, center, as Chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1935.

Port of Houston[edit]

Jones soon made his mark as a builder across Houston, and helped to secure federal funding for the Houston Ship Channel, which opened in 1914 and made the city a viable port.[citation needed]

American Red Cross[edit]

President Woodrow Wilson asked Jones to become director general of military relief for the American Red Cross during World War I, a position he held until 1919.[1]

Reconstruction Finance Corporation chairman[edit]

When the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was established in 1932, President Hoover appointed Jones to the RFC's board, even though Hoover was a Republican and Jones a Democrat. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made him the Chairman of the RFC, while also expanding the RFC's powers to make loans and bail out banks. This led some to refer to Jones as "the fourth branch of government."[25] Roosevelt reportedly called Jones "Jesus H. Jones."[26][27]

Jones retired from the RFC on July 17, 1939, to become Federal Loan Administrator (head of the Federal Loan Agency, which supervised the RFC and some other bodies).[citation needed]

Secretary of Commerce[edit]

President Woodrow Wilson offered Jones the position of United States Secretary of Commerce, but Jones decided instead to remain in Houston and focus on his businesses.[25] He accepted the same position from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, and he served until 1945.[1]

Exit from Washington[edit]

Henry Wallace was dropped from the ticket as Vice President in 1944. Jones was on the short list to replace him. However Roosevelt wanted social progress to continue and Jones's reputation was far too conservative for that role.[28] Roosevelt was reelected and asked Jones to resign as Secretary of Commerce, which he did on January 21, 1945. The next day he resigned from RFC and all other government positions.[29] Jones released the two letters to the press, and several newspapers—including The New York Times–criticized Roosevelt's decision to name Wallace as Secretary of Commerce. Senator Josiah Bailey of North Carolina called both Jones and Wallace to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee, each on consecutive days. Jones testified on the first day that he did not believe that Wallace was a suitable candidate. He characterized Wallace as a visionary who lacked business experience. Sometime during the five hours of testimony the next day, Wallace touted his own business experience, but sought to restrict the scope of power from the Commerce Department and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which he claimed were exploited by business interests.[30]

Jones himself along, with a majority of Congressmen and Senators, publicly denounced this decision and refused several senior diplomatic roles under the Roosevelt administration in protest.[31] Wallace's contested confirmation was one of the most controversial actions of the 79th Congress due to leaked correspondences between Jones and President Roosevelt concerning the political debt that the president owed Wallace.[32]

Suite 8F Group[edit]

Jones was also an active participant in the so-called "Suite 8F Group." This was composed of very wealthy, politically active businessmen who met in Suite 8F of the Lamar Hotel in downtown Houston. The group raised money to elect influential politicians who supported their conservative business and political views. Beneficiaries included, but were not limited to, Congressman, Senator and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congressman Albert Thomas, and Governor and Secretary of the Navy John B. Connally, Jr.[citation needed]

Houston Endowment Inc.[edit]

In 1937, Jesse Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, established Houston Endowment Inc., which eventually became the largest private foundation in Texas. It was the principal beneficiary of the Jones's estates, ultimately owning a large number of businesses and buildings, mostly in Houston. Jones was named president of the foundation, and remained so until his death in 1956. He was succeeded as president by his nephew, John T. Jones. The Endowment retained ownership of the Chronicle until 1987.[citation needed]


In 1925, Jones received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Southwestern University,[33] and another from Oglethorpe University in 1941.[34]

Later years and death[edit]

He retained the title of publisher of the Houston Chronicle until his death on June 1, 1956, at the age of 82. His remains were interred in Houston's Forest Park Cemetery.[1]


Jesse Jones Building of the Houston Public Library.

Thanks in large part to the largesse of the Houston Endowment, the name of Jesse H. Jones is memorialized throughout Houston. The home of the Houston Symphony is Jesse H. Jones Hall in the Houston Theater District.[35] Jones High School[36] and Texas Southern University Jesse H. Jones School of Business are historically black institutions. The Jones family had a strong influence on Rice University as well, with the eponymous Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management founded in large part by a gift from Houston Endowment Inc., and Jones College named for Mary Gibbs Jones. The Jesse H. Jones Student Life Center, a recreation facility at the University of Houston–Downtown was also named for Jones.

In the Texas Medical Center (Houston), there are the Jesse H. Jones Rotary House Hotel, a hotel for MD Anderson Cancer patients and family members,[37] the Jones library building for the Houston Academy of Medicine/Texas Medical Center;[38] and the Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Pavilion (1977) connecting Memorial Hermann Hospital to the University of Texas Medical School.[39] The original site of Texas Woman's University Houston campus, across the street from the HAM/TMC library, included Mary Gibbs Jones hall; TWU moved to a new location in 2006 and the original site became part of Houston Methodist Hospital.

Other Jones buildings include the Houston Public Library's Central Library building[40] and the headquarters for the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross.[41]

The University of Texas at Austin's College of Communication is named after Jones, where there is also the Jesse H. Jones Chair in the Liberal Arts, held by the renowned philosopher T. K. Seung. Baylor University's central libraries comprise the Jesse H. Jones Library (1992) and the Moody Memorial Library (1968).[42]

Jesse H. Jones Physical Education Complex at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin

The Jesse H. Jones Physical Education Complex on the campus of Texas Lutheran University in Seguin bears his name.

In 1956, the Jesse Holman Jones Hospital was built in Springfield, Tennessee, to replace the original hospital there. This hospital operated until 1995, when a new facility, NorthCrest Medical Center, was constructed.

Beyond buildings, one may visit the Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center in Humble.[43] or drive across the Houston Ship Channel (for which Jones was the driving force) on what was once (1982–1994) the Jesse H. Jones Memorial Bridge.[44]

Newspaperman Bascom N. Timmons penned a biography of Jones in 1956 entitled Jesse H. Jones: The Man and the Statesman.[45]


  1. ^ a b c d e Lionel V. Patenaude (13 April 2017). "Jones, Jesse Holman". Handbook of Texas. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved 13 October 2017. 
  2. ^ Jones, Jesse H. Fifty billion dollars;: My thirteen years with the RFC, 1932-1945 (1951)
  3. ^ Mason, Joseph R. (2003). "The Political Economy of Reconstruction Finance Corporation Assistance During the Great Depression". Explorations in Economic History. 40 (2): 101–121. doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00013-5. 
  4. ^ Koistinen, Paul A. C. (2004). Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700613080. 
  5. ^ Steven Fenberg (2011). Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good. College Station: Texas A & M University Press. pp. 7–8. 
  6. ^ Fenberg, p. 11.
  7. ^ "National Register of Historic Places Inventory--Nomination Form: Sudley Place". National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior. Retrieved March 2, 2018. 
  8. ^ Fenberg, pp. 13–15.
  9. ^ Fenberg, pp. 11–15.
  10. ^ Fenberg, pp. 16–19.
  11. ^ Fenberg, pp. 20–23.
  12. ^ Fenberg, p. 26.
  13. ^ Fenberg, pp. 28–30.
  14. ^ Fenberg, pp. 30–32.
  15. ^ Fenberg, p. 37.
  16. ^ Fenberg, p. 39.
  17. ^ Fenberg, p. 50.
  18. ^ Fenberg, p. 46.
  19. ^ Foster, Marcellus Elliot (1870-1942) from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved March 26, 2010.
  20. ^ Fenberg, p. 43, 46.
  21. ^ Fenberg, pp. 50–51.
  22. ^ Fenberg, pp. 125–127.
  23. ^ Fenberg, p. 32.
  24. ^ Fenberg, pp.44–46.
  25. ^ a b "Brother, Can You Spare A Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones". PBS and Houston Public Media. Retrieved 18 October 2017. 
  26. ^ Merle Miller. Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974)
  27. ^ Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, pp. 73-75, 165-6, 207, Random House, New York, NY. ISBN 978-1-4000-6964-4.
  28. ^ Roger Daniels (2016). Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945. p. 81. 
  29. ^ Fenberg, pp. 502–512.
  30. ^ Fenberg, pp. 515–518.
  31. ^ Template:W.A, Logan "To Senator Bourke Hickenlooper" 23 Jan. 1945
  32. ^ Template:Franklin, Roosevelt "To the Honorable Secretary of Commerce" 20 Jan. 1945.
  33. ^ "Jesse Jones to Speak at Centennial Celebration". The Megaphone. 
  34. ^ "Honorary Degrees Awarded by Oglethorpe University". Oglethorpe University. Archived from the original on 2015-03-19. Retrieved 2015-03-18. 
  35. ^ [1] Archived January 25, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  36. ^ "Jones (Jesse H.) High School / Homepage". Archived from the original on 2012-02-23. Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  37. ^ "Rotary House International | MD Anderson Cancer Center". 2013-02-20. Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  38. ^ "Texas Medical Center Library | Home Page". 2013-01-07. Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  39. ^ "HERMANN HOSPITAL | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA)". Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  40. ^ "Houston Public Library| Central Library, Jesse H. Jones Building". Retrieved 2016-11-10. 
  41. ^ "Greater Houston | American Red Cross | Volunteer, Donate, Training". Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  42. ^ "Baylor University || University Libraries". 2012-06-05. Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  43. ^ "Harris County Precinct Four". Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  44. ^ "Houston - Photo Gallery Beltway 8 Eastern Segment, US 59 North to Interstate 45 South". TexasFreeway. Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  45. ^ Jesse H. Jones: The Man and the Statesman. Retrieved August 30, 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Buenger, Walter L. (2003). "Jesse H. Jones". In Hendrickson, Kenneth E., Jr.; Collins, Michael L. Profiles in Power: Twentieth-Century Texans in Washington. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292798423. 
  • Jones, Jesse H. Fifty billion dollars: My thirteen years with the RFC, 1932-1945 (1951) detailed memoir by longtime chairman
  • Koistinen, Paul A. C. (2004). Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700613080. 
  • Mason, Joseph R. (2003). "The Political Economy of Reconstruction Finance Corporation Assistance During the Great Depression". Explorations in Economic History. 40 (2): 101–121. doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00013-5. 
  • Olson, James S. (1988). "Saving Capitalism: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the New Deal, 1933-1940". Princeton U. Press. 
  • Sprinkel, Beryl Wayne (1952). "Economic Consequences of the Operations of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation". Journal of Business of the University of Chicago. 25 (4): 211–224. doi:10.1086/233060. JSTOR 2350206. 
  • White, Gerald Taylor (1980). Billions for Defense: Government Financing by the Defense Plant Corporation During World War II. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 081730018X. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Harry L. Hopkins
U.S. Secretary of Commerce
Served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt

September 19, 1940 – March 1, 1945
Succeeded by
Henry A. Wallace