The life of Foy Magee, the voice of a century of East Texas farming

Photography by Jamie Maldonado

Foy Magee’s stories can charm you for hours if you let him, and you’ll gladly let him. A lifelong East Texan hailing from a long line of industrious family farmers—they escaped the potato blight in Ireland two centuries ago, landed in the deep South, and made their way to the Tyler area—his stories bring to life 100 years of East Texas agriculture. At 91, he remembers every detail along the way, from his first farm chore to the first saddle he ever purchased new.

Foy’s story also captures East Texas’s booms and changes over the past century. Along with maintaining his farm, he worked his way up in the oil business. With a mix of practicality and some sadness, he watched new technologies shrink the need for manual work on farms like his. And his family’s saga—refugees who escaped deep deprivation to create new bounty in a new land—continues to echo in the ever-shifting demographics of East Texas today.

Here is Foy telling his story, in his own words and distinctive East Texas voice.

1800’s: Foy’s family comes to America

“My great-great-grandpa John was born in Ireland in 1818. They prolly raised taters, since that’s all anybody grew. They came to the United States around 1820 and settled in South Carolina. Then, on to Mississippi where my grandpa was born.

My great-grandparents farmed—it’s all they knew. It was the South, so they farmed cotton and a little corn for the livestock, and mighta had sweet potatoes later on. ‘Round the Civil War time, my Grandpa Perry would sit on the front gate of the farm there in Mississippi and watch the soldiers fightin’. Them soldiers, all they got was two sweet taters a day. So that’s why I’m thinkin’ my kin grew sweet taters, too.

After the war, when Grandpa Perry was a teen, the family moved to San Augustine County, Texas, where they farmed. Then they moved onto Horn Hill in Limestone County, on the edge of the Blacklands. Grandpa Perry had sixty seven acres on Horn Hill, farmin’ cotton to sell and corn for the livestock. Daddy was born in 1887, and Mama was born in 1891.”

A picture of Foy’s father, Ollie, and his mother, Jennie Tommie, hangs in his grandson’s home in Murchison today.

Early 1900’s: Growing up on a family farm in Texas

“Mama and Daddy had a farm in the Blacklands farmin’ ever’thang: cotton, vegetables, you name it. Mama ran turkeys on the Blacklands, too. They’d be all up in the woods and hidin’ out, so she’d put a bell around one of ’em’s neck so you could hear ‘em and drive ‘em home when you needed to. I still got that bell. Brings back some memories.

Foy’s mother’s old turkey bell

Later on, Daddy started workin’ for McLennan County, puttin’ in the old Highway 31. He had three ol’ boys to run mule teams of three and a Fresno. [The Fresno Scraper was a tool pulled by livestock to create irrigation ditches.] That darn road wandered everywhere. If you had money, or was important, the road would go around your property. If you weren’t nobody important, they’d go right through your property.

Daddy was farming cotton and tomaters, too, while he was building roads. My two oldest brothers was workin’ for him when he built the state road. Daddy was the meanest guy to work for at home but my brother, Goober, said he was okay to work for on the jobs. Ain’t that a funny thing?

In 1927, Mama and Daddy had a farm in New Hope [a tiny, unincorporated town about 20 miles southwest of Tyler], and that’s where I was born, right between the Methodist church and the cemetery. Mama, Daddy, and my grandparents had ‘bout four to five hundred acres. We was raisin’ tomaters, cotton and corn, sorghum for syrup, peas and peanuts, you name it. My granddaddy hoed cotton every day of his life till he was 90 years old. He was blind from cataracts as long as I can remember, but he was still out there hoein’ cotton till it was time for lunch everyday.

When I was itty bitty Mama’d go to the field, and put me down at the end of the row in the shade while she worked. She pick me up and put me down on another row till she was done workin’ the field.

During the Depression, nobody had money. We had worn clothes and if we got a hole in our overalls, Mama’d patch that sucker and we’d work in ‘em till they plum wore out. We had one suit to wear to church and that was it.

We was farmin’ but couldn’t get nothin’ for our produce. Daddy’d take a wagon load of tomaters to one of the tomater sheds in Brownsboro. Back then all the little towns had produce sheds: Frankston had tomaters, Murchison had the watermelons. Daddy’d pull up in the wagon. The buyers would come look, and offer you half a cent a pound. The buyers’d crate up them green tomaters, cover ‘em in a tarp, put ‘em on boxcars, cover ’em in ice, and off they’d go to New York or wherever. Most of the time Daddy’d bring back home a half a wagon full. You can’t make a livin’ like that! That’s why he was always workin’ them other jobs.

You had [farm chores] when you was little bitty. When you was strong enough to pull that pulley in the well, you got your first job. I got to carry water to the field when I was six. There weren’t no such thing as electricity so you draw’d fresh cool water from the well and Mama had me take it to ’em in the field on our ol’ donkey. That sumgum would walk under a dang old tree limb and rub me off—hot damn he was smart!—and I’d have to carry the water rest of the way walkin’.

When I was about eight or nine, I got to start pickin’ the down row of corn. You got a man on each side of the wagon pickin’ two rows each, and the wagon straddled a row, knockin’ the corn down. They’d say “Foy, you short, so you take the down row.” I’d have to bend over and get that corn off the ground. Same way when we’d plant them ‘maters. I was the short one, so ol’ Foy was ‘a one stooped down under the damn wagon to git at it. Damn right, I was lucky.

We had chickens my whole life. We didn’t pen ’em up. We’d let ’em run around outside. They’ll get them bugs from around your house if ya let ’em. It took a whole lot longer than them six-week chickens we got these days. When I was about ten years old, Mama’d say she needed some big fryers and I’d be the one to catch ’em with a wire that had a crook in it, and kill ‘em.

I thought I’d be like Brookshires and try doublin’ my production by usin’ both hands to kill ’em and get through a whole lot quicker. Only thing was my right hand was the only one strong enough to do the killin’. So, I never could pull off increasing production! I will never forget that.”

Foy looks at old pictures of loved ones.

1940s: Coming into his own during wartime

“By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was in charge of all those jobs around the farm. My brother was seven years younger than me, so I had it all to do. Get the horses up and feed ‘em, milk and feed the cows, do the chickens and the hogs.

‘Bout that time I won a sow hog in a 4-H essay contest and my best friend Derl got the boar pig. So, we got ’em together for babies. I gave him a pig for the breedin’ fee, one to 4-H, and I kept that ol’ sow for a long time, havin’ eight to ten pigs at a time. Purdy good deal!

That’s also ‘bout the time I started runnin’ a middle buster [a tool for digging up root vegetables]. I was doin’ a big man’s job! But that darn middle buster was the worst thing about farmin’. You’d run it among those persimmon sprouts and the roots’d come up and slap ya on the chin. Hot damn, that’d hurt!

During the war, Daddy was workin’ off the farm and I was workin’ on other people’s farms with a mule and plow, makin’ money. We’d start at six o’clock in the mornin’ till just before sun went down. When I went home I could hardly walk. I got to stringhaltin’ [having leg cramps] somethin’ awful but I’d be better the next mornin’, ready to go to work.

That summer I was seventeen and went to work for my brother in Arizona, and that’s when I worked my first tractor. It was a John Deere. He was workin’ a lot more land than I ever had. We didn’t have no damn tractors at my house; ain’t nobody had no tractors. Where I lived you could get together with your neighbors and plow everyone’s fields with a few horse and mules and a couple ‘a implements like a cultivator and a breakin’ plow and a cross-tie for drag. That’s really all you gotta have.

Nowadays, these people’ll go out and buy a tractor, payin’ seven thousand dollars just to get started, compared to doin’ it with horse and mule for under a thousand. ‘Course you gotta learn how to plow but, gosh darn, that ain’t no trick.

I went to Brownsboro school all the way up to high school. They had a good agriculture department there. My last year in high school we finally got a football coach. I’d been playin’ halfback for three years but we didn’t have a coach until halfway through my senior year in 1945 ’cause they’s all in the service. We just taught ourselves how to play, gettin’ some of our plays off the Wheaties box. After we got a coach, we didn’t lose a ballgame, and I got a football sweater that year. Ain’t that sump’n? This’ll be the first year we ain’t gonna have a Brownsboro High School reunion. There’s seven of us left and it’s hard gettin’ everybody together.

Foy’s letterman sweater from his senior year in Brownsboro

At eighteen, I joined the Marines on the GI Bill and worked in the Navy prison for two years. Every year they’d have a National Rifle Association shootin’ competition. Still do. They picked me outta everybody in my company to represent the Marine Corps. An ol’ fella in the Seabees (Construction Battalion) used to joke about always wantin’ me in front of him when we was workin’, to protect him. Seabees weren’t carryin’ no guns so us Marines was always guardin’ em. He said I was the gunninest sergeant in the Marine Corps!

After the Marines, I went to Henderson County Junior College [now Trinity Valley Community College] while I was livin’ with my sister in Athens. I studied agriculture and helped start the first agricultural club there. That club’s a big thing now. I got an Associate of Science in Agriculture degree, walkin’ to college everyday. I was raisin’ some hogs and helpin’ my brother build houses, too. I helped build the Christian Youth Foundation doin’ construction and keeping their books. That’s the only time in my life I didn’t have a horse or mule, was when I was in college or in the Marine Corps.

In 1949, I bought my first farm, nine acres in Murchison. I broke down and got my first tractor. I was just usin’ my horses for ridin’ then. It sure was easier working that land just sittin’ there. I got my first head of cattle—four milk cows—while living there. We’d milk ever mornin’, strain the milk, then I’d go to work and deliver the milk around town after I got off work. We sold milk about two years.”

1950s: Working on the farm and on the oilfields 

“Around 1952, I bought the one hundred and thirty three acres right where I’m livin’ now. I had land all up ‘n down the road. Before the county came in, it was called Magee Road. No kiddin’. My brother and I built my ol’ homeplace next door from the ground up, that’s where my grandson James Michael’s livin’ now. That’s back when they was really buildin’ houses. Those mahogany walls was put in not usin’ a single nail. I’d get off work and start workin’ on the house at night. I’m proud of that sucker. It’s stout.

The first saddle Foy ever purchased in new condition. He bought it around 1954..

I worked in the oilfield business for twenty-six years. Started as a roustabout [a relatively unskilled laborer] in the oil fields. Then, after I got some seniority, I started driving a truck for ‘bout eleven years, then moved up from a B to an A operator. I was the only one that could bid on all the jobs ’cause I was the only one that knew how to do all the work and was willin’ to do it. I was president of [the local chapter of] the Atomic and Chemical Union, and on the negotiating committee for the union.

I was raisin’ hay, and farmin’ vegetables all over Athens, Bethel, Brownsboro, and Edom. I leveled that land right there behind my house using one of them Fresnos. That, and a plow, is the most important tools you can have on a farm. My great-granddaddy used a Fresno, so’d my granddaddy, my Daddy, and me. Hell, they helped build them railroads and roads in town with them Fresnos! Don’t guess they’re usin’ ’em much these days.

A Fresno Scraper made circa 1900, around the time Foy’s father was working as a farmer

No way you could make a livin’ farmin’ then, and besides, I was makin’ more money than anyone in the county workin’ as a chemical operator. Damn right it was dangerous work, that stuff blow up in a New York minute, in fact it did blowed up every once in a while. That stuff gets to jumpin’ quick—I mean quick! It blowed gravel up on me one time. I had to run around to the other side of it. Ain’t easy.

When I was about forty nine, they closed the chemical plant down so I started workin’ full time on the farm, just ’cause I loved it. I had my one hundred and thirty three acres and ninety nine head of cattle—never could get to one hundred!—so I said, I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Companies’d call me tryin’ to get me to work, but I had my family and farm, and decided to just stay close.

I was raisin’ a little honey just for us and helpin’ raise that ol’ boy James Michael—he’s forty two now. When he was just a baby we’d have honey every mornin’ with biscuits. Boy, he goes for that honey now! I had about forty acres of vegetables and thirty acres of peas, selling at the farmer’s markets.”

Today: selling at the farmer’s market and thinking on the future of local farming

“Around 1984, I got rid of all my tractors. I decided since I was farmin’ with mules and horses my whole life, I’d start competin’ in horse drivin’ competitions with the East Texas Horse and Mule Association. I competed four or five years, won the “best all round,” then the group disbanded. Every year the winner’d get the trophy. I won it the last year the group was together so I still got it. I won the Texas Horse and Mule competition one year. Hot damn, the state of Texas is big and it’s hard on the horses to travel that far, so I gave it up.

Trophies from Foy’s draft horse competition days

I was growin’ enough produce to be sellin’ at the farmers market in Dallas. Tyler didn’t have a market back then. Once Tyler opened up a market I started sellin’ there and was doin’ real good. Back then it was a big market, took up two sheds and had a wholesale area. Folks were lined up buyin’. I was sellin’ all sorts of produce and blackberries by the gallon. Them ol’ boys’d buy five, six gallons at a time, makin’ jelly and wine I suppose. Cantaloupe was also a big seller of mine. Then the grocery stores started gettin’ in on it, and lookin’ all like they’s a farmers market, and we started losin’ our customers.

I was happy to be a founding member of Rose City Farmers Market. I think the farmer’s market is the best place for a farmer to sell his produce and ‘bout the only place to sell these days. You got narrow choices. You get top money compared to wholesalin’ but you gotta sell a whole lot to make ends meet. If the city’d get behind us we’ll sell a whole lot more. The market seems more of a novelty to ’em but farmers lives are dependin’ on it.

Folks aren’t growin’ their own food ’cause they just don’t have the knowledge to and when you’re raisin’ a family you gotta cut every corner you can. ‘Course, I was raised growin’ a garden so I didn’t know no different. I raised my kids up in a garden but they don’t have ’em now. They all got big professions now—they ain’t gonna raise no garden. They just don’t like the farmin’, I guess, and there’s more options now than there used to be.

Unable to work the land, Foy built a series of raised garden beds so he could continue farming and selling at the farmer’s market.

That’s the word right there: options. You didn’t have many options when I grew up. I don’t necessarily wish my kids had gotten into farmin’, they’re so dang smart, wantin’ to be in management and sales and so on. That’s a good thing. I’ve got three kids, four grandkids, and two great-grandkids. My oldest grandson’s heart is in this land here so maybe one day he’ll come here full-time.

Farmin’ today is a hard row unless you go big commercial like, but then you gotta buy a fifty thousand dollar tractor, and on and on, and no one can do that. Them big ol’ farms, I’m talkin’ ten thousand acres or more, are growing commercial crops now, like wheat, and ya ain’t gotta do nothin’ after you plant it. Just sit and wait for it to come up, then hire some folks to harvest it. Beats the hell outta vegetable farmin’ where you gotta be out there touchin’ it everyday. East Texas farmers are smaller and can do it, just gotta be smart and gotta hustle all year long to make a livin.’

I don’t care if I’m worth a million dollars or don’t have two cents to rub together—I try to be the same person. I was born in New Hope, Mama’s parents are buried there, and I’m gonna be buried in New Hope.

I loved ever’thang about farmin’. I’d rather pick shit with the chickens than ever move into the city.”

Foy with one of his old Fresno Scrapers.

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Carmen, who grew up spending holidays in Tyler and lives here today, has been an actor, private investigator, professional baker, and search-and-rescue dog handler. She is the founder and president of Farm and Food Coalition, a non-profit organization creating better access to locally grown food through farmer's markets, shared gardens, and community-building events. She founded the Rose City Farmers Market in 2013. Carmen plans to soon embark on a one-year exploration of food and agriculture across the U.S., living in a converted van with her dog Bodhi.
An East Texas native, Jamie Maldonado has worked as a visual journalist and copy editor for the Longview News-Journal, The Denver Post and other publications. He is a professional photographer and creates YouTube content about film photography. Taking to heart Dorothea Lange’s quote, “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera,” Jamie has turned his lens on his hometown and its people to see it anew.