THE INSTITUTE OF TEXAN CULTURES
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Judge Harry Lesser
~Chappell Hill, Tex)s r July 21, 1988
\Beth c. Williams
W: When were you born?
L: I was born 29 years after the Civil War, or as some
prefer to call it, The War Between the States. When I
was growing up, 'til my school days, we never heard of
football. The popular games were baseball and marbles and
spinning tops. I often think how cruel it was to my young
beautiful wife who came to Chappell Hill to teach school.
She was from Austin, living three blocks from the capital
and about four blocks from the governor's mansion . They had
all the city conveniences: we had none. No electricity , no
telephone, no running water, no ice, no refrigerator. But
she never one time complained about living without all these
I was born in the back of the store in 1894. They had
a home that has long been removed. My father came from
Germany at the age of 12 years old. And the reason he came
to Cha~ll Hill was he had some relatives. When he landed
in New York, his father told him he had relatives in Texas
so he came to Houston and then Chappell Hill and worked for
L: these relatives until he was grown. And then went back
to New York , Boston, St. Louis on a buying trip for dry
goods. Wasn't any wholesale dry goods houses in Texas . Met
my mother in Boston and told her if she'd come back, meet
him in Houston, they'd be married. So she did and they were
married about 1890. And on the marriage license, I noticed
the name J. N. Taub, which were the people that donated the
J. N. Taub Hospital to the city of Houston long years ago .
In my early school , kind of a sad situation, none of my
school mates, the old school friends, are living. I am now
a judge here in Chappell Hill. Have been for about 20
W: And you're now 94?
L: Yes . I'm 94 l/2 years young.
W: Well, tell me about the ferry, down where you had to
cross, a ferry across the Brazos River corning from Hempstead
to Chappell Hill?
L: In the early 1920's, they built a highway through
Washington County, highway number 20 . One of the first
highways in Texas. At the end of the highway in Washington
County, the banks of the Brazos River, no way to cross, no
bridge. So they decided to build a ferry called Hempstead,
Brenham, Chappell Hill Ferry Company. And in about less
than six months, they had the .•. received enough money from
fees, crossing that ferry, to pay for what the ferry cost.
And all those years, they never had one accident. Which was
W: Did a McDade operate the ferry?
L: No, it was ...
W: One of the McDades?
W: Was there a town down there by the name ••• What was the
name of that town that the flood washed away? or the town
burned down? Was it Warre~ton?
L: I think so, but I can't quite remembe~ .
W: The whole town ... (tape noise.)
Tell about the Roman candle fight.
L: My father had employed a man, name of Joe Kennedy, to
help out during Christmas week. At the end, on Christmas
Eve night, he kept open 'til about 12 o 'clock, he called
Joe over - said, "Joe, we'll close up now. How much do I
owe you for the week?" "Well, Mr. Lesser, five days will be
f i ve dollars. A dollar a day. Give it to me in Roman
candles." Because they had a bunch of boys out in front of
the store on horses with mud almost belly deep; with
slickers . (They) were going to have a Roman candle fight.
And they were out front of the store waiting. Before he got
out of the store, they was shooting Roman candles into the
store •.• And, surprising to me, there wasn't a fire.
I've been in this store since I was born in 1894,
e xcept during 1917 and 1918, •.• 1919 I was discharged from
World War I. And have been Justice of the Peace here about
20 years. And before that, my brother was J.P. It's been
L: in the family for almost 40 years. And I still am
Justice of the Peace.
1n fact, today I held an inquest, a friend of mine
drowned; and I had a wedding this morning before dinner.
Wedding and an inquest.
W: That's interesting.
W: Well now this - You operate the store and your son
L: Yes, I operate it. My brother and I, brother by the
name of Abe Lesser, he and I operated the store after my
father passed away. And now my son operates it, but I still
have my office in back of the store, and I'm here every day
except on Sundays.
W: (Phone rings.) o. K. We'll stop it now.
L: I remember in the old olden days, we had eleven saloons
in Chappell Hill. Folks would come into the store and say,
"Do you have any beer?" I said, "No. We don't handle
beer. Neither does the Post Office or the bank but anywhere
else in Chappell Hill, are eleven places you can buy beer."
I like t o throw this in just for the fun of it because Mrs.
Beth Chappell Williams is interviewing me and her son
was •.• he r father and I were very dear school mates; same
class in school •.• in the early 1900's.
His uncle was County Judge for many years of Washington
County and he idolized Robert. So Robert says to me one
day, "Hey, why don't you get a pony and a dog like I have?"
L: And I said, "I don't have an Uncle John." Robert had a
dog by the name of Dallas, a grey hound. He loved this
dog ••. And a boy that rode on the back, rode double
horseback, this Negro boy by the name of Hardy. Funny that
I can remember those names, very close friends. Now in
these latter days it was Dr. Chappell.
I remember the days before, the days never heard of
quarantine, when customers would come into the store with
the face all broken out with small pox. They'd hand ••• my
mother would wear an apron ••• and handed her money and she
had to put her hand under the apron to accept the money.
And I asked my mother, when she put the money in the cash
drawer , when she took the money out of the cash drawer, "You
can't use your apron," but for some mysterious reason, none
of us ever contacted small pox.
W: What about the fight in the store over here, and just
don't call the name.
L: (Tape noise.)
W: Tell about the feud they had up here.
L: In days gone by, I've never ••• a feud in front of the
store . Two white men shooting it out. One named Sligh, and
I can't remember the other man . You know, I can't even
remember them having a trial, which was always a mysterious
thing to me.
Had one lawyer, I remember, the family, defense lawyer
in Brenham, and he asked one of the family that was a member
of the trial, "Now, in this trial, are you going to furnish
L: a witness," says, "Or you want me to furnish the
witnesses?" That's the way of court procedures in those
days. Either the lawyer, attorney, would furnish the
witnesses or you furnish the witnesses. (Laughter.)
W: I know you're tired ••. (Tape noise, converations in the
L: I recall another incident in Chappell Hill, very
interesting . A boy by the name of
McDade serving in the
Spanish American War, was given a Carnegie Medal for saving
this ship. The ship was on fire and he pushed the barrels
of powder into the ocean. That was during the Spanish
American War. By the name of McDade, a relative of Mrs.
Williams here. I'm sure of that.
W: Describe the home •••
L: The home that I was born in in Chappell Hill is no
longer ••. it really was part of the store, the rear end of
the store. Of course it no longer exists now.
[W: What I was trying to get over to you was that the home
where he was born in the back of the store , is now, still
is, the back of the s tore. I am sitting in the part of the
store where he was born.]
Thank you, Judge Lesser. I believe this will complete
the interview. Thank you so much.
END OF TAPE I , Side 1, about 17, 18 minutes.
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