1903 the Texas Conference of the Methodist Church sent 28-year-old Jesse Lee to
Trinity County as pastor of the Groveton Methodist church.
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.
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.
against Lee became so commonplace that he started carrying a pistol when Sheriff
John Stanley made him deputy, allowing him to enforce the law.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 14, 2007 Column,
reissued April 15, 2012
Bob Bowman's East Texas
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
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