Horseback riders and enthusiasts turned out in impressive fashion at Foxboro Farm near Thomson last Saturday. It was all for a good cause - the Foxboro Hunter Derby - to raise money for the McDuffie County Ferst Foundation, a charitable program that helps less fortunate children learn to read.
The derby, which drew an estimated 40 riders and horses from parts of North Carolina, Atlanta, Aiken, South Carolina and the Augusta area, was done in the memory of the late James E. Wilson, a well-known Thomson businessman, avid hunter and lover of horses.
Horse riders competed in two different divisions - Show Hunter Derby and Field Hunter Derby.
"We had a super time," exclaimed Epp Wilson, the youngest of the four sons of James E. Wilson and his wife, Ruth, who still lives on the Pine Top Farm near Thomson. "Everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves. We were even able to raise a substantial amount of money for the Ferst Foundation charity, which was great, too."
Mr. Wilson said the derby raised $100. The funds will be used to purchase books for the Fest Foundation in McDuffie County. Since 2007 when the foundation first began locally, more than 700 children have been helped by receiving a book once a month at no charge.
"Literacy is such a big deal," said Mr. Wilson. "This is an important program because there are a lot of kids in our community who don't have the same opportunities that other children have to read and learn. This program helps provide help for those who don't have money to buy books for their children or grandchildren. It's good for any community to educate their children better - that's plain and simple."
Mr. Wilson said his father would have been "real tickled" to have been part of the charity for the Ferst Foundation.
As a longtime businessman, the late Mr. Wilson believed in spreading his wealth with those who didn't have.
"Daddy always believed in giving back," said the younger Mr. Wilson. "My Daddy was very interested in establishing a campus for Augusta Tech in Thomson. He supported it financially and he supported it within this community."
Mr. Wilson said Anne Moss, his fiancÃ©, came up with the idea of raising money for the local Ferst Foundation by Foxboro Farm hosting a hunter derby.
"She knew my Daddy and loved him, too," said Mr. Wilson. "It really meant a lot to me and all of my family that she thought enough of my Daddy to have this derby in his memory. She knew how much Daddy loved horses, as well as hunts and shows with horses involved."
Three of the elder Mr. Wilson's close friends attended last weekend's derby and reminisced about their departed friend.
One of them was Barbara Lee, who along with her husband, operate a 105-acre farm in Jefferson County near the small Burke County town of Keysville.
"Mr. James was a one of kind man," recalled Mrs. Lee. "He had such a unique ability to lead. And he was such a hard-worker. He could outwork any of us when we'd participate in the Belle Meade fox hunts."
She said he would have been pleased to have known that this charity had begun, because "he was such a generous man."
Mrs. Lee said she always thought of Mr. Wilson "as a man larger than life. He loved life and lived it to the fullest. As members of the Belle Meade Hunt, he always inspired us to do more and to never give up."
Another longtime friend of the late Mr. Wilson who attended the derby was Bill Russell, of Palmetto, Ga. - the lone judge of the derby who formerly worked for Mr. Wilson as a private horse trainer at Pine Top Farm near Thomson. Today, Pine Top Farm is operated by Glenn Wilson and his wife, Janet.
"The thing I remember most about James Wilson was his enthusiasm about everything - life in general," said Mr. Russell, who today serves as the equestrian coach at Georgia State University. "He was the kind of man who would try anything. And he was a very fair man. He always treated people fair.
Another man who knew James Wilson well too, also attended. He was Vic Russell, Bill's brother, who participated in the derby along with several family members. Vic Russell made the trip to Thomson from his home in Tryon, N.C.
Pat Farner, a guidance counselor at Thomson High School, said she and others affiliated with the local Ferst Foundation were "deeply appreciative" of Mr. Wilson and his family for hosting the derby at Foxboro Farm.