A Legacy of Generosity and Leadership

bixby50During a critical period in its 140-year history, the Missouri Historical Society was fortunate to number among its friends St. Louis’ leading cultural philanthropist, William K. Bixby. Bixby served as the Society’s president from 1907 to 1913, as vice president from 1914 to 1924, and as president again from 1925 to 1930. Bixby, who died in 1931, left a lasting legacy in the local arts and cultural community.

Born in 1857, Bixby was a self-made man, whose life typifies the American success story.  Following high school graduation, he took a job as baggage handler on the International & Great Northern Railroad in Texas, where he attracted the attention of H. M. Hoxie, president of the Missouri Pacific. Impressed by Bixby’s diligence and intelligence, Hoxie brought him to St. Louis to work for the Union Pacific, where he quickly earned several promotions. The turning point in his career occurred when he went to work for American Car & Foundry Company as lumber buyer. There he earned his way to the position of president of the company and chairman of the board. It’s no surprise that Bixby, later in life, noted that “success is not an accident; it is obtained by steady, persistent, untiring, intelligent work.”

Bixby worked with such persistence and intelligence that he was able to retire at age 48 and pursue his artistic and literary interests and his passion for collecting autographs, manuscripts, and rare books. St. Louis is the richer for Bixby’s second career in philanthropy, which benefited the Missouri Historical Society, the St. Louis Art Museum, Washington University, the Mercantile Library, and the St. Louis Artists Guild, to name just a few. MHS has Bixby to thank for such outstanding holdings as the Jefferson Collection, which figured in Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition, and the papers of leading figures of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.  A list of his gifts to the collections in a single month, March, 1915, takes up thirty-five pages in the Society’s minute books.

For over 30 years, from 1900 to his death in 1931, Bixby contributed generously to the Missouri Historical Society. He solicited friends and business associates to increase the Society’s small endowment, and he was always ready with a personal gift to cover an operating emergency or finance an acquisition.  Today Bixby’s support continues through two trusts—the Bixby Publication Fund and the Bixby Book Fund. The latter remains a major source of revenue for new purchases in the library and archives. The legacy of William K. Bixby’s leadership, like his financial legacy, is also alive and well at MHS.