Sometimes, Bill’s wife, Erin Kay, sits in the swing, and Bill gives her a gentle push.
If he pushed hard enough, high enough, Erin could see clear into the past century.
Their land has been farmed and ranched continuously for 104 years, and that will be certified by the Family Land Heritage Program this coming November at a ceremony in the Texas House chambers.
TO DRIVE from the gate to a ranch house often affords clues about a man’s relationship with his land. Mr. Fox is a third-generation owner; two signs, hanging from his gate, are a testament to his stewardship: “Charter Member, Bee County Wildlife Management Association” and “Member, Society for Ranch Management.”
Where the road splits to surround the house is another sign of equal weight: “Aggie Country.”
Like so many ranches in South Texas, the road to the back door shows the most wear.
“We don’t use the front door here very much,” Fox says. “If fact, I’m not sure where the key is to unlock it.”
All visitors first are vetted with mixed messages from Shiloh, Honey and Misty, three dogs whose warning barks are mediated by ferocious tail wagging.
Inside the two-story home, with more than 25 clocks punctuated by a painting of London’s Big Ben, the walls are decorated with game trophies.
In the corner of the Fox living room, a wide-screen television is tuned to Fox News.
Erin is the historian. Handwritten on four pages of a legal notebook is the history of the ranch, dating back to when its original owner, William Hill, was granted 640 acres in 1837 for his fighting with Sam Houston in the Battle of San Jacinto.
Fox’s great-grandfather, William Henry Fox — cowboy, horse trainer and Indian fighter — immigrated to the United States from Ireland sometime after the Civil War.
In 1890, he married Lillie Pearl and settled in Pettus. In 1908, he bought 120 acres of land for $960 — $400 down.
The property has been under Fox ownership since.
In 1961, it was deeded to William Earnest Fox.
“I grew up on this place with my father,” Bill recalls. “We sowed our own corn, we pulled our own corn, we mixed grain for our cattle, and we cut fence posts from the mesquite and dug every post hole by hand.”
Bill Fox ended up a coach at a number of Texas schools (“We made the rounds,” Erin says), finally settling at Pettus, where his wife taught English. They’ve just celebrated their 49th anniversary.
Both retired in 2004.
TODAY, Bill allocates a few acres for growing coastal hay. But there are few signs of the land a century ago.
Driving a large Ford pickup equipped with every accessory, Bill and Erin cross his land to the far northwest corner, to a mesquite tree that guards a gate with solemn dedication.
“The property was surveyed in 1839 and again in 1854,” Erin says, consulting her notes.
IN THOSE times, the surveyors designated land boundaries by marking a large “X” on mesquite and live oak trees.
The X is gone but not the tree.
That’s because, at the first survey, the mesquite’s trunk was 4 inches around.
Bill wraps his retractable tape measure around the tree: circumference — 102 inches.
“That tree has survived being hit by lightning; it has survived storms, and it’s still here.”
On parts of the property are the rusting farm implements he and his father used to use.
Each piece of equipment plows up a memory.
“I used to ride that sickle while my father pulled it with the tractor.
“The cattle and hogs we raised here put me and my brother through high school,” Bill says.
“See that?” he asks, pointing to another piece of equipment. “We used to cut corn with that thing. It has a water ballast for weight. I still use it to clear out some areas.”
Such as a place for his pet project: raising native grasses that used to be common on his land.
He turns his pickup into an enclave surrounded with large oak trees, a pastoral place designed for late-autumn picnics.
“Some of these trees are more than 200 years old,” he says. “They needed attention, but, at 73, I can’t give them the attention they need.”
In time, his son, William Fox III, will inherit the land and, Bill hopes, continue caring for it.
“I plan to stay right here to the end, as long as I can,” Bill says, with determination not unlike that of an old mesquite tree, guarding a gate far to the northwest.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.