Jesse Jones was born on April 5, 1874, just nine years after the end of the Civil War, and grew up on his family’s prosperous tobacco farm in Robertson County, Tennessee. Although the Joneses would eventually live in one of the grandest homes outside of Nashville, poverty surrounded them. Jesse’s father, William, always kept the farm’s smokehouse doors open so their struggling neighbors could help themselves when food was scarce. Jesse’s Aunt Nancy, who moved in with the Joneses after his mother died when he was six, always kept track of who took food so she could make sure they were eventually repaid. From their charitable but frugal example, young Jesse saw that a loan worked better than a handout and that most neighbors honored their obligations when given sufficient time. When able, they helped others. Jesse saw how his family’s beneficence helped his community, and with enormous success and unparalleled influence, he applied these early lessons throughout his life in business, public service and philanthropy.
At age 20, Mr. Jones moved from Tennessee to Dallas to work at his uncle M. T. Jones’s largest lumberyard. M. T. owned sawmills, lumberyards and timberland throughout Texas and lived in Houston, the home base of his vast operations. Mr. Jones would later recall in a speech, “It may be that my uncle and I were too much of the same temperament to be entirely congenial, but after he found that I had energy and interest for business, as well as for play, we got on better and, I am glad to say, were fast friends long before he died at St. Paul’s Sanitarium in June 1898. In fact, he named me one of his executors and that took me to Houston, the headquarters of his business.”