End of the Line

With its largest private employer set to close its doors, tiny Lockney searches for a new economy.

He never quit. J.M. Tye got up early, worked hard, and stayed late, and the farm-implement business that bears his name, the Tye Company, quietly pumped life and jobs into the tiny Panhandle town of Lockney for 36 years. When he died in late March, though, at the age of 86, he knew that Tye would soon close its doors, setting 55 workers adrift. Forget the booming high-tech economy and the big-city dot-com millionaires; for Lockney, it’s the end of an era.

As early as September, AGCO, a Georgia-based company that bought Tye in 1995, will shut down the 175,000-square-foot plant in the name of consolidation. Tye products will live on—production is moving to a plant in Heston, Kansas—but that is little comfort to John Tye, who took over the family business from his father in 1974. He understands why AGCO made the decision, but that doesn’t make it any easier. “There are fewer and fewer farmers, and they need fewer dealers to serve them,” the 55-year-old says. “The problem is you have to be either small enough to be regional or much larger to sell nationally. The folks in the middle have a tough time.”

The birth of J.M. Tye’s business sounds like a classic American success story. In the early sixties, dissatisfied with the available cotton planters, Tye rigged one of his own. His improvements worked so well that his neighbors asked him to make planters for them, and a company was born. J.M. guided the growing business until the seventies, when he gave it to John. “I learned from him that if you weren’t smarter than the rest, then you could outwork them,” John says of his father. “Always be the last to go home.” At its peak, in the early eighties, the Lockney plant employed approximately 150 people, or almost 10 percent of the town.

But hard times were around the corner, and John decided to sell the company to AGCO. He did so knowing that he had no assurances that the plant would stay open, and after the sale, it began to die slowly. First, the production of seed drills and other cultivation products was shut down for two months in late 1998, and older workers were offered early retirement. Then, during a second shutdown in 1999, AGCO announced that the plant would be shut down for good. One final reprieve has production set to cease by the end of September. John is resigned about the loss, the same way that his father was. “He was pragmatic,” John says. “There was nothing he could do, and he knew it. He felt bad mostly for the folks who would be out of a job.”

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