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  • Texas | Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

    Pistol-packing Preacher

    by Bob Bowman
    Bob Bowman

    In 1903 the Texas Conference of the Methodist Church sent 28-year-old Jesse Lee to Trinity County as pastor of the Groveton Methodist church.

    Licensed to preach in 1897, and coming from peaceful communities like Malakoff and Beaver Valley, Lee was appalled at the lack of law enforcement and the rampant sales of liquor in Trinity County despite prohibition elections.

    Men openly defied the law and operated their saloons in renegade towns like Tight Eye, Battle Axe and Last Chance.

    On his first morning in Groveton Lee presided at the funeral of a young church member who had been murdered. He soon named criminals from his pulpit and where they gathered.

    Threats against Lee became so commonplace that he started carrying a pistol when Sheriff John Stanley made him deputy, allowing him to enforce the law.

    After a particularly heated Sunday night church service, Reverend Lee was called to Crockett by his superior, Reverend J.B. Sears, who had concluded Lee should be moved from Trinity County.

    While in Crockett, Lee learned that his church and parsonage in Groveton had burned and, in the words of the messenger, "all you have are three shoes, four books and a typewriter." Sears changed his mind about relocating Lee and told him, "Go back and clean them (the criminals) out."

    Lee's courage instilled enthusiasm among Trinity County's honest citizens, who employed a detective to gather evidence against the illegal saloons. But as the lawbreakers were being tried, a key witness and County Attorney Howard Robb were murdered.

    Lee called together Groveton's businessmen and asked each of them to help him smash every illicit saloon in Groveton and board up the buildings.

    Each of the ten men in the room signed a pact and used sledge hammers to break open whiskey barrels and bottles. The doors of the saloons were nailed shut. By the time the last saloon was destroyed, the ten men organized by Lee had been joined by nearly 200 more.

    Groveton, according to historian Flora Bowles, then organized the Groveton Law and Order League. "A reign of lawlessness was outlawed by a band of law-abiding citizens in an unlawful manner...and from that day to the present, Groveton has never been the lawless community that it was before," she wrote.

    During the latter years of his life, Jesse Lee lost much the robustness that served him well in Trinity County. He sustained a stroke, which left him bedridden fourteen years, and passed away at New London on September 12, 1964, at the age of eighty-nine.

    One of the reminders of Lee's courageous ministry in Trinity County--the typewriter salvaged from the fire that destroyed his church and parsonage at Groveton--is owned today by his grandson, Rev. Clifford Lee.

    © Bob Bowman May 14, 2007 Column, reissued April 15, 2012
    More Bob Bowman's East Texas >
    A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
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    (Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of almost 50 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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    The Forgotten Towns of East Texas, Vol. I
    By Bob and Doris Bowman
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