Texas USA
Taylor’s Twain
Circleville Philosopher entertained small-town newspaper readers with satire

Henry Fox in his home office in 1979
Will Van Overbeek

Philosopher Henry Fox of Circleville wanted to be elected to the Texas Legislature on a platform of just five of the Ten Commandments, a 1951 Abilene Reporter-News article announced. “Seems to me,” Fox wrote, “all 10 of ’em ain’t very popular with the majority. Some folks favor one set, some another. Under my system, you pick out any five you prefer.”

Meet Texas’ answer to Mark Twain.

Fox’s weekly satire columns were printed in small-town newspapers across the nation, most widely in his home state, from 1935 until his death in 1989, says Gary Borders, who has collected more than 2,500 of the columns for a biography of the down-home sage.

“What struck me was how good he was at satire and humor,” Borders says. “Liberals could read him and think he was like them. Conservatives could read him and think he was like them, too.”

Fox grew up in Granger and attended nearby Southwestern University in Georgetown, where he discovered his satirical knack through work for the student paper. In one column, he took aim at a professor who required students to read one of his own books. Fox almost got kicked out of school for his opinions, his daughter, Carol Fox, recalls. “He wrote of the book, ‘It’s too light to serve as a doorstop, too big to fill a mouse hole.’ ”

After college, Fox spent a year in New York City striving to make his literary mark. Turns out he spent much time in the library, reading, his daughter says. He returned to Texas, lived with his brother and worked without salary for what is now the Austin American-Statesman to learn the newspaper business.

With his father’s financial help, Carol Fox says, Henry Fox bought an East Texas newspaper in Centerville then another in Madisonville, where his life changed in big ways. He developed a crush on Marie Price, the editor of the Frankston newspaper, and began writing a satire column as the folksy Navasota Philosopher (after the nearby Navasota River), partly to compete with the rival editor but mostly to get her attention. “They got into a Hepburn-Tracy contest, writing back and forth in their columns,” his daughter says. In person, Fox was extremely shy; he sent his friend and Williamson County Sun publisher Don Scarbrough to take a peek at Price. At Scarbrough’s urging, Fox got up the nerve to meet her. Two months later, he proposed.

Fox first gained national attention as the creator of the Madisonville Sidewalk Cattlemen’s Association, a group poking fun at boot-wearing lawyers who didn’t own cattle. Penalties for such boot wearing were to include dunking in the town fountain. Newspaper wire services spread the group’s fame. When a Massachusetts girl heard of it, she wrote asking where she could buy boots, then not readily available nationwide. Fox and his pals flew her in, dressed her in a full cowgirl outfit and raked in publicity for their small town.

After World War II, Henry and Marie Fox moved to a house on the San Gabriel River in Circleville, a dot on the map outside of Taylor. Soon, his column took off. A version of it appeared in Collier’s magazine nationwide, and he began to self-syndicate a weekly column. Marie and the kids would stuff envelopes and send his words out to the world. At its peak, Borders says, the column ran in 150 newspapers and claimed a readership of more than a million.

“The Circleville Chamber of Commerce has issued a bulletin to all industries that if they should happen to move to Circleville, they should bring their own labor with them,” Fox was quoted as saying in the Waco News-Tribune in 1952, adding, “We at Circleville are working all we intend to.”

Fox’s stroke of business acumen was to let each newspaper personalize the column. He’d leave blanks for names of a local banker or business. The name for the column itself changed, too. It was the Jollyville Philosopher in Round Rock; the Sinking Fork Philosopher in Charleston, Indiana; and the Papago Philosopher in Casa Grande, Arizona. Fox was the actual Circleville Philosopher in the Taylor Daily Press.

“Most readers thought he was a local guy writing the column,” says Borders, who published the Fort Stockton newspaper, where the column was called Pecos Willie. Borders became fascinated with the writer and the whole notion of the once-vibrant world of small-town journalism. His book-in-progress has the working title, Yours Faithfully, JA, the signoff for each of Fox’s columns. “JA” was said to stand for Jack Ass, a term an unhappy reader directed at Fox.

Despite his national following, Fox led a quiet, reclusive life in Circleville, his daughter says. Every day at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. he would go to the nearby Circleville Store, order a Coke and listen. “He called it his laboratory,” Carol Fox says. “It was a place to study human nature.”

Joe O’Connell is an Austin writer.