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Upshur County TX
Upshur County

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Upshur County, East Texas

32°35'0"N 94°54'35"W (32.583227, -94.909607)

Highway 271
11 miles SW of Gilmer the county seat
1 mile N of Gladewater
112 miles E of Dallas
27 miles NE of Tyler
13 miles W of Longview
35 miles W of Marshall
Population: 385 Est. (2019)
357 (2010) 346 (2000) 271 (1990)

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Union Grove Highschool
Union Grove Elem School
Photo courtesy Sam Lester, 2003

Union Grove appears clearly on Upshur County maps, just outside the Gladewater city limits.

From the 1930s into the 40s - Union Grove had a church, a cemetery, and a high school with a student body of about 125.

The Upshur County Chronicles

Union Grove Texas 1941 Football Team
Union Grove Texas 1941 Football Team
Photo courtesy George Lester

Union Grove also happens to be the former home of the Lester Brothers - George and Sam. George shares stories of life in 1940s Union Grove in the Upshur County Chronicles below.

The Upshur County Chronicles

George Lester remembers Union Grove

Helmet-less Football, Bone-chilling Movies,
Short Boxing Careers and
Why Teachers Should Be Demanding

  • Prologue
  • UG vs EM
  • Helmets Were Optional: High School Football Rules c. 1940
  • Oil Wells and High School
  • The Boxer
  • Saturday Night Fever (Upshur County Version)

  • Prologue

    I remember that balmy evening in May as I sat nervously waiting for the principal to call my name signaling my turn to step up and receive my Union Grove High School diploma. Sitting next to me was my brother Sam - also waiting his turn. Around the state thousands of others were experiencing the same thing…young, eager teenagers embarking on a journey into the future. But with Sam and me it was different. We were both in our seventies.

    Governor Perry, with the help of others, provided the means for those who interrupted their education to enter the service in World War Two to receive their belated diplomas.

    Here we were, almost 60 years later finally becoming high school graduates.

    Earlier that day Sam and I had spent a wonderful afternoon at the home of Lloyd Pyle, a fellow graduate of Union Grove along with several other alumni of the school. They had planned a little party in our honor prior to the graduation ceremony. We were a bit embarrassed by the attention since almost all the other guests had also been in the war; some with records that far surpassed ours. The only difference was, we were the only ones receiving diplomas that night.

    The fellowship and the conversation were warm and inviting as we sat around and swapped stories from over a half-century before. Some of them I will share with you now.

    Football game, Union Grove, Texas
    Union Grove in Dark Jerseys -
    East Mountain in Light

    Photo courtesy Sam Lester

    UG VS EM
    Union Grove vs East Mountain - 1941

    # 11 Thurman Starkley, #12 J.D. (Kinky) White, #15 Don McAfee, #17 Frank Smith, # 20, Jo Berry Floyd, #22 Earl Tackett, #24 James Coulter, #40 Morris Kirk (for some reason wearing a white jersey) Player nearer the camera on the right with his arm around the other player is Bill McKean.

    This photo was taken after the Union Grove-East Mountain game in 1941. The game was always played on neutral ground in Gilmer during the YAMBOREE festival. In those days there was no such thing as a face mask penalty...since we had no face masks. Our helmets were very thin and offered minimum protection against shock. That was long before the days of Spandex so the pants were baggy causing the pads to flop around our legs, leaving them vulnerable.

    (For a brief rundown of 1940s rules - see Helmets were Optional - Ed)

    Union Grove only had 125 in the entire high school so the band director and the football coach worked out an agreement so we could participate in both activities. I remember our line averaged 165 pounds and our backfield averaged only 135. As a third string back I weighed in at a hefty 118 pounds. I spent most of my high school football career watching from the bench but I did make a good blocking dummy during scrimmages. I was even knocked unconscious a couple of times by overly aggressive linemen.

    I was a much better clarinet player.

    By the way, we won that game with East Mountain 13-6.

    Union Grove High Football game tackle
    "You had to run it out or the other team got a safety if you were tackled in the end zone." - George Lester
    Photo courtesy George Lester

    Helmets were Optional
    Some 1940 Football Rules

    There was no two-platoon system. The players were required to play both offense and defense

    In the early 40s there was no touchback rule when you intercepted a pass in the end zone. You had to run it out or the other team got a safety if you were tackled in the end zone.

    There were no flags for penalties. The referee had two sound-making devices. A whistle to stop play and a horn to signal a penalty. It was very confusing The coach drummed it into us "Stop playing when you hear a whistle, keep on playing when you hear a horn." No wonder they changed it.

    You could play without a helmet if you wanted to. We had a great runner, Leonard Charles, who was deaf in one ear so he couldn't hear signals. Five minutes into the game he would throw his helmet to the sidelines and the crowd would go wild. Usually he'd score a touchdown in the next play.

    The silent rule: A player coming into the game was not allowed to say a word until a play was run. On one occasion, a player entering the game shouted "OK boys, let's get going!" - and it cost us a 15-yard penalty.

    Union Grove High school band
    Band Members on tour in Waco
    From left, Truitt Smith, George AKA "Eddie" Lester, Gorman Prince and Earl Tackett

    Photo courtesy George Lester

    Sam Lester at Alamo Plaza Tourist Court
    The photo is my brother Sam taken at the old Alamo Plaza Tourist Court (the word "motel" had not been coined yet) in Waco about '41 during a band contest. - Geroge Lester

    Departing Alamo Court, Waco, Texas
    The band departing Waco's Alamo Courts
    Photo courtesy George Lester

    Oil Wells and High School
    Revenue sent Band to Waco

    Even though the depression was still going on we at Union Grove High School had it pretty good because the school district owned three producing oil wells. This allowed the school to supply the students with a lot of things poorer schools could not afford. When the band went on trips, transportation, hotel rooms and food were all paid for.

    Therefore, being in the band opened doors to a lifestyle we couldn't hope to have otherwise. Our band director, Jack Mahan, was a real taskmaster who stood for no nonsense. You could hear a pin drop during rehearsals. He drove us and inspired us to rise high above our expectations and our band soon gained a reputation of excellence that spread far beyond our area. I remember the many times he would place sheet music on our music stands facing away from us. Turning the music over on a signal from him forced us to learn sight reading.

    This drill paid off for me when I enlisted in the Marines. When I got out of boot camp, there were forty-four Marines auditioning for the base band in San Diego. As I heard some of the musicians warming up, I thought to myself: "Golly, I don't stand a chance." However, when the sheet music was placed before them, they faded away one at a time and I was one of only three that was accepted.

    Thank you Jack Mahan.

    The Boxer
    In which "Eddie" receives a one-way ticket to Palookaville

    I remember one summer I had a friend that lived in Gladewater, Texas just a couple of miles from the Union Grove area. He had won several amateur boxing matches and was willing to help me learn a bit about the manly art. We spent many hours sparring behind the house in the hot summer sun. After a while neighbor kids would come to watch. Against my wishes, my friend would take his gloves off and invite one of the spectators to try his luck against his prize student. To my surprise, I found that I had become a pretty good boxer and my confidence grew with each newly-defeated opponent.

    When school started that fall I learned the school was going to have a boxing team for the first time and I jumped at the chance to join. The school divided the boxers into two teams who would later face each other in an event toward the end of the school year. At practice each day, I continued to easily beat my sparring partners. My confidence soared.

    Finally, the big day came and the two teams were to face each other - one bout at a time. I learned who my opponent would be and I knew him to be a soft-spoken, shy fellow that wouldn't harm a flea.

    I came out of my corner at the opening bell and that's about all I can remember.

    While I had been practicing jabs, hooks, upper cuts and dodging, he totally ignored all rules and boxing logic and came at me like a Tasmanian devil - with fists flying in every direction. I was totally overwhelmed and was thankful when the referee stopped the fight.

    I didn't come out for boxing the next year.

    Three highschool friends
    Trick Photography (before Photoshop)
    Left: George Lester
    Center: Paul ?
    Right: Bill McKean

    Photo courtesy George Lester

    Saturday Night Fever (Upshur County Version)
    Thrills? Maybe. Chills? Yes.

    We lived about four miles from Gladewater on an oil lease that my dad maintained. My brother Sam and I thought nothing of walking that little jaunt into town to take in a movie. One Saturday in the fall we did just that. We found out there was a real good "picture show" playing at the Liberty theatre, the one where admission was only 25 cents.

    As we started the trek into town we noticed dark clouds gathering above, but that was no deterrent to a couple of adventurous teenagers. We stubbornly marched on toward town but as we entered the city limits the skies opened up. Making a mad dash across the street to seek shelter, I slipped and fell into the gutter - becoming completely submerged in the muddy water. Sam was soaked as well. The temperature had dropped into the mid-60s and we were shivering badly. At this point you would think that we'd turn around and head for home. No way!

    We paid our admission and entered the air-conditioned theater soaking wet. To make the best of a bad situation, we went into the restroom, took off our clothes and began wringing them out. As luck would have it, as we stood there in our underwear, the usher walked in. He was almost ready to call a cop until we did some fast-talking and explained what was going on. He walked out shaking his head.

    We sat in our damp clothes watching the movie for two hours. Our teeth were chattering so loudly you could hear them several aisles away.

    When we left the theatre to face that four-mile walk back home the temperature had dropped further - into the mid-50s and it was still raining hard. We made it home, but we were both sick for a week. I don't remember what the movie was…but must have been a good one.

    Union Grove School, Texas 1942
    Union Grove School 1942
    Photo courtesy George Lester

    Union Grove Class of '44
    Photo courtesy George Lester

    Further adventures of George "Eddie" Lester and Brother Sam can be found at Spunky Flat.

    Take a road trip

    East Texas

    Union Grove, Texas Nearby Towns:
    Gilmer the counyy seat
    Gladewater | Tyler | Longview | Marshall
    See Upshur County

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