The Patriarch: W.K. Bixby is the subject of a new biography by his grand daughter, Bolton resident Sally B. Defty
Perhaps because of the impressive Greek Revival mansion at the entrance to Bolton Landing, or the 36 foot electric launch, the ‘St Louis,’ which without question is Lake George’s best known privately-owned boat, people may feel they know all there is to be known about W.K. Bixby.
But according to his grand daughter, Sally Bixby Defty, not even his direct, living descendants (268 at last count), are as well-acquainted with him as they should be.
“For many in the family, he’s not much more than an imposing figure in the portrait that hangs in the Big House,” said Defty, a former reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
That was enough to inspire her to write “Passionate Pursuits: William Keeney Bixby,” a life of the St. Louis industrialist, collector, philanthropist, traveler (and, of course, Bolton summer resident), which was published in July and is now available for purchase at Trees.
“I wanted to humanize him,” said Defty. “Even in old age, he retained a capacity to be thrilled, to be exhilarated by whatever he saw; his curiosity never flagged. At heart, he remained a young man.”
Bixby’s accomplishments are sufficient to earn him an authorized biography, regardless of his local fame.
By the age of 42, he was president of American Car and Foundry, a conglomeration of rail car manufacturers that made St Louis, in his words, “the principal seat of the car manufacturing industry in the world.”
Six years later, in 1906, he retired, prepared to spend the rest of his life collecting art, rare books and manuscripts and endowing institutions such as Washington University and the St. Louis Art Museum.
“He had more interesting things to do than make money,” said Defty.
Bixby never received a college education. The lack of a degree was something he shared with contemporaries and friends Robert S. Brookings, who founded Brookings Institution in Washington, and Charles Freer, for whom the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian is named, said Defty.
“They were all nouveau riches, but what they did with their money was so imaginative,” said Defty. “There was not a Donald Trump among them.”
Bixby was an auto-didact, Defty said. Once he began collecting an author’s manuscripts, “he would read everything by and about him. He would read a book a night,” she said.
Bixby disposed of his manuscript collection in the 1920s.
“None of his sons were interested in his collections; they had absorbed too much of their father’s attention,” she said.
For Bixby’s sons, Bolton Landing was not only the lakeshore town where their father bought an old hotel, demolished it and raised in its place a summer cottage, but their mother’s hometown.
Lillian Tuttle Bixby was born in 1856 at the farm on Federal Hill Road which Sally Defty’s father, Ralph Bixby, bought from relatives and restored in the 1940s.
Bixby and Lillian Tuttle met in 1879, almost by accident, in Texas, at the rail depot run by Lillian’s brother Sidney.
According to Sally Defty, Sidney Tuttle asked his sister to come to Texas and to “bring some of the butternuts so fondly remembered from Bolton…. her train pulled into the station (and with) her suitcase in one hand and the bag of butternuts in the other, she descended the metal steps… And just as she alighted, the bag burst…. A baggage man hurried over to help her retrieve them.”
The baggage man was a young W.K. Bixby.
Despite its romantic beginnings, the relationship between W.K. Bixby and Lillian Tuttle Bixby remains obscure, Defty said.
“In every photograph I’ve seen, she’s looking away from him,” said Defty. “They travelled together throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and W.K. kept detailed travel journals, but he never records her re-actions to anything.”
Bixby’s relations with his sons also appear to have been distant, said Defty.
“He was a very busy man,” said Defty. “It was his older brother Sidney who taught my father to fish, for example. My father was much closer to his mother.”
Nevertheless, the Bixbys were a true clan.
As Ralph Bixby once wrote in a letter to a niece’s husband, “All (the brothers) got along well together and often people laughed to see Bixby brothers talking to each other at a party of fifty.”
The family remains a tightly-knit clan, thanks in large part to the patriarch. Before his death in 1931, W.K. Bixbycreated a trust to maintain Mohican Point, which allows his descendants to still gather in Bolton Landing every summer.
“Without the house, and without the ‘St. Louis,’ the family would have dispersed long ago,” said Defty.
To celebrate the publication of “Passionate Pursuits: William Keeney Bixby,” a reception for Sally Defty will be held at the Bolton Historical Museum on Saturday, August 18 from 4 to 6 pm. After the reception, Defty will sign copies of her book at Trees.