When it comes to family roots in Amarillo, Jay Kirkman III can claim both sides. Whether you trace his paternal or maternal family tree, either way, you’ll end up downtown.
“My paternal great-grandmother, Annie Elizabeth (Gober) Kirkman, was the first woman to get a loan from the First National Bank to buy the land in 1917 at 4th and Pierce Street for a merchant building,” says Jay. “And my maternal great-grandparents, Jess and Nannie Slade, owned the buildings between 6th and 7th Streets, where the old Woolsworth used to be.”
In fact, the family home at 1600 Bonham was built in 1938, the third oldest home in that area, and was paid for by the lease on those buildings. In addition to the buildings downtown, Great-Grandmother Slade wrote the check to buy the land at Georgia and Julian where the first Church of Christ, Scientist in Amarillo was built.
“Rufus Kelly and my granddad were best friends and they used to sit on his back porch and shoot jack rabbits in what’s now Wolflin Village, which was a playa lake then,” says Jay. “The house was built out of Klinker brick, which was popular in the 30s.”
But let’s go back downtown. John Preston Kirkman was a merchant and sold goods in the buildings on the land his wife, Annie, purchased. This business arrangement at that time is significant because Annie was a certified land owner before she even had the right to vote. Shortly after acquiring the land, she sold part of it to two brothers who built the Liberty Theater. Because 4th Street was a main corridor for the railroad, it was a bustling place at the turn of the century.
“Across 4th Street, there’s an alleyway before you get to Taylor Street. There was a house owned by the Cornelius family, who’s the oldest family in Amarillo,” says Jay. “This was the first house built in Amarillo and it had a dirt floor. When I was a little boy, it was still there. The two Cornelius girls who were born there lived there until they died, so there’s a lot of history in those few streets.”
The Gober family hailed from the North Georgia and Tennessee Valley region and arrived in the Panhandle in the early 1880s, when the original site for a new town was near the Canadian River. Once the railroad established the town farther south, the Gober and Kirkman families followed suit. James R. Gober, Annie’s brother, was the first Sheriff of Potter County.
Jay is a fifth generation Amarillo native, and though he left his hometown for a brief spell, he returned five years ago and moved back into the family home on Bonham.
“When I left, I had mixed emotions. I had enough family here and I knew it was okay to leave. I knew that house would eventually be mine,” says Jay. “But I came back because my mom was ill. I would come back twice a year and with each visit I could see she was getting worse.”
Jay graduated from the last class of the old Amarillo High School located downtown, prior to it burning down. He went to West Texas A&M for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in public administration. After working for Levi Strauss as the Human Resources Director, Jay moved to Columbus, Ohio, and then Raleigh, North Carolina, for the same position with International Paper. He spent another four years in Sacramento, California, working for Aerojet, and returned to Amarillo to care for his mother and run his special events company, Star Canyon Entertainment.
“When I was a little boy, I saw the evolution of downtown. I could tell you where anything is in Amarillo. I mean, I could tell you where every pothole is,” he laughs. “I go to Llano Cemetery and see my whole family, and because my sisters don’t live here, I hate to give this up. It gets harder to think about leaving because you get more attached the longer you stay.”