When old-timers talk about Huntsville, they speak in terms of landmarks, both lost and preserved. “Back then,” you might hear, “you could eat downtown at either Café Raven or Café Texan, but today there’s only the Texan.” Or, “That building over there was the Walker County Jail. You can still see the bars on the windows.”
Not often discussed in these conversations is the unassuming location of the Gibbs Brothers & Company, located at 1118 ½ Sam Houston Avenue. Even the address, with its fraction at the end, seems only to punctuate its inconspicuousness. But of all the Huntsville landmarks, the Gibbs Brothers & Company has the longest sustained presence in the community.
Thomas Gibbs, along with his soon-to-be business partner Gardner Coffin, arrived in Huntsville on September 4, 1841, with a “small stock of goods to sell.” It’s not clear what prompted the men to settle in Huntsville, but they arrived prepared to open a mercantile store. They were operational within the month—perhaps even the same day they arrived—and by 1842, were well established in the nascent community. In 1843, however, Coffin passed away, and in 1847 Thomas’ brother—Sandford—bought half-interest in the store, giving the company a new name—T & S Gibbs.
In the early years, the business operated in the form of a mercantile store. Supplies were scarce in frontier towns, and items such as coffee, rice, and nails were welcomed by residents in Huntsville and surrounding communities. As noted in one of the first entries from the Gibbs’ ledger, an F.B. Pankey purchased 10 pounds of coffee (two dollars), a pound of nails (15 cents), and a palmetto hat (37 cents). These purchases were typical, but in a town with little circulating cash, it’s likely that Pankey paid not with dollars and cents, but with trade or credit, a system that would become more elaborate and sophisticated as the store grew.
In 1872, Thomas Gibbs passed away, and Sandford purchased his brother’s share of the store. T & S Gibbs became S Gibbs Company. Eventually renamed Gibbs Brothers & Company, the business has remained in the control of Sandford and his direct descendants since 1872.
Although family control of the Gibbs Brothers Company has remained constant, the nature of the business has evolved. By the late 1800s, the Gibbs Brothers’ company increased their investments, expanded their landholdings, and under the stewardship of Sandford’s widow Sallie, established the Gibbs National Bank. Extending the system of credit used by the Gibbs Mercantile Store, the Gibbs Bank grew quickly into a mature lending institution, ending their first year of operations with more than $90,000 worth of deposits—in 1890 dollars.
The bank’s operations proved successful, practicing what Wilbourn S. Gibbs (one of Sandford and Sallie’s sons) described as “conservativeness tempered with liberal treatment of worthy patrons and legitimate help to legitimate local enterprises.”
But even more successful were the company’s investments in land and other resources, a happy product of the influence exercised by Sallie Gibbs. There were other female business leaders in 19th century Texas, but few exercised the control she did over financial matters. She was the largest shareholder of the Gibbs Bank and oversaw the largest expansion of landholdings in the Gibbs Brothers’ history. Indeed, by the time of her death in 1918, Gibbs Brothers & Company owned some 150,000 acres of land and were generating revenue from land sales, timber sales, and oil and gas leases.
It was this success in land and mineral resources that allowed the Gibbs Brothers to grow beyond the banking world. In 1923, the family reorganized the bank as the “First National Bank” of Huntsville and provided a greater share of ownership throughout the community. The bank continues to thrive as the longest-operating bank in Huntsville and remains locally owned.
Since the 1920s, Gibbs Brothers & Company has divested much of its land holdings (while keeping much of the mineral rights on the land they previously owned), emphasizing instead investment portfolios and management of its numerous local properties in Walker County.
The company has also preserved a family-centric philosophy that has helped promote unity among the family and its business holdings. According to oral history, the family’s philosophy was aptly illustrated by Sallie Gibbs, who would summon her children and command each of them to go outside and return with a stick. Once the sticks were gathered, the Gibbs’ matriarch would take one and break it. Then she would bind the remaining sticks in a bundle, which she would then fruitlessly attempt to break. A quick display of the unbroken bundle reinforced to the children the strength found in unity.
Although the company’s business focus has changed and changed again over the years, the company in all of its manifestations remains a Walker County success story, one that will this month celebrate its 175th year in existence. Over this extended period, it has been owned by the same family and occupied the same location, the only such business with that claim in the storied state of Texas.
Beyond the financial success of Gibbs Brothers & Company, family members have had a substantial impact on the community’s civic, educational, and cultural affairs. Sam Houston counted Thomas and Sandford as friends and, according to the historical marker on the northeast corner of 11th Street and Sam Houston Avenue, he would often whittle outside their store. Such was their relationship that General Houston named Thomas Gibbs as an executor of his will and, in the contingency of misfortune to Margaret Houston, guardian of the Houston children.
Sandford Gibbs was appointed as one of three Directors of the Texas Penitentiary system in 1871, serving alongside Strother Green, one of the highest-ranking African-American officials in the southern United States. Along with Peter Royal, they recommended proposals such as modest pay for inmates who worked in the penitentiary and a reduction of time for good behavior, incentives that they hoped would aid in rehabilitating inmates.
Both Sandford and Thomas played a large role in bringing the railroad to Huntsville. Such an arrangement required $50,000 in up-front money to the rail company, and the Gibbs Brothers donated $9,000, more than twice the amount of any other single donor. The rail arrived in 1872.
With a major state agency and a tap-line rail, Huntsville became a prime candidate for a “Normal Institute,” a training school for teachers in the state of Texas. Following a grant from the Peabody Education Fund, Sandford donated a fifth of the funds necessary to purchase the Austin Hall structure, which served as the first building of what is now Sam Houston State University.
In addition to donating land for the W. T. Robinson Medical Park—where the Huntsville Memorial Hospital is located—and a portion of the land on which I-45 was built, members of the Gibbs’ family have also had a healthy involvement in more direct civic engagement. Five members of the Gibbs family have been elected to Huntsville City Council, and they have collectively served a total of 12 years as Mayor and 33 years as councilmembers.
Given the family’s extensive financial, charitable, historical, and civic presence in the community, it’s no surprise that the Gibbs Brothers & Company is not the only landmark associated with the family in the community. The site of the Wynne Home Arts Center was originally a wedding gift to Samuella Gibbs from her uncle and aunt, Sandford and Sallie. The Sallie Gibbs pocket park is nestled in a portion of the site formerly occupied by her home, which formed one of the City’s most notable structures, standing from 1896-1950. Additionally, the T. C. Gibbs Park and the J. Phillip Gibbs, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts are named for Sandford’s and Sallie’s son and grandson, respectively. Mary McAshan Gibbs Elementary is named for the daughter-in-law of Sandford and Sallie. SHSU’s 1,600-acre Gibbs Ranch was a gift from W.S. and Ruth Gibbs in 1993, and their financial gift also made possible the W.S. Gibbs Conference Hall in the Walker Education Center.
The parks, schools, and centers—touching as they do on education, recreation, rehabilitation, and arts—loom large in a community such as Huntsville. And, although most of these landmarks are physically more impressive than the entry-way at 1118 ½ 11th Street, their foundations were laid by a “small stock of goods” first offered for sale 175 years ago this month.
Seven descendants of Sandford Gibbs still live in the Huntsville area: Clay Scantlin, Donald Gibbs, Mac Woodward, Mary Laura Gibbs, Mary Lee Woodward Nichols, Bill Woodward, and Mike Robinson. They, along with their hundred or so closest relatives, will be celebrating the 175th Anniversary of the Gibbs Brothers & Company this month.
Dick and Frances Cording Arrive in Huntsville
In August 1970, Dick and Frances Cording —along with their four young daughters—moved into a Gibbs Brothers’ home located at 1507 Avenue O, Huntsville, Texas. When Dick went to pay the first month’s rent, Ed Sandhop—Operations Manager for the Gibbs Brothers—declined, noting that the family hadn’t lived there very long. “Pay when you feel settled in,” he said. A couple of months later, one of Dick and Susan’s daughters, Susan, was put in the hospital. During this period, too, the family’s rent checks were returned, a gentle courtesy recalled by both Frances and Dick 46 years later.