History of Kemah from "Echos"
Reprinted from Jimmie Walker’s Edgewater Echos Published for the enjoyment of our customers and friends. Volume 1, Issue 1, all 1973 Publisher: Mrs. Lorae Walker Editor: P.L. Fears Editorial Staff: Ken Caywood Bob Schulz.
It’s one of those hot, muggy September days so common to this part of the country…about 90 degrees.. and across the way at the Kemah City Hall the air conditioners whirl merrily away. But at a white frame house on Bradford, the front door is open to the tree shaded veranda and the curtains over the sitting room windows sway gently from the surprisingly cool air sucked in by an attic fan. Here, it’s quiet and comfortable. It’s a good time for easy conversation. And the Kemah oldtimer is a good conversationalist. “Now, lemme tell you about a good gambling joint. It was Kelly’s. Humpy Kelly’s. Oh, yeah, ol’ Humpy Kelly ran a good gambling joint…Yeah, a lotta dem Houston people came down here to gamble…But, see I gotta tell you about how ol’ Humby Kelly got his name. I can’t tell you all of it, cause some people might remember…there’s not too many people around here older than me…but ol’ Humpy got shot in the back with a shotgun slug. I can tell you this: dat slug was made out of an ol’ cast net weight, you know, whittled down to fit in the barrel of a shotgun, and when ol’ Humpy got shot in the back with it, right under the left shoulder blade, well, dat slug stayed in there, and gristle kinda grew up around it, and it made ol’ Humpy kinda hunchbacked like dis…
Before Kemah was Kemah, it was known as Evergreen. Available records are sketchy, but apparently the community was founded in 1898 by John Henry Kipp, a veteran of the Magnolia Rangers of the Confederate States Army, and James H. Bradford, a long time friend. Kipp and Bradford were livestock men, and at the time Evergreen was situated on the old Texas and New Orleans railroad.
But there was a problem. Evergreen had a sister city, another Evergreen, on Cedar Bayou across Gavleston Bay. When the first U.S. Post Office was established in the area in 1910, the two Evergreens began getting each other’s mail. The Evergreen at the mouth of Clear Creek changed its name to Kemah, an Indian word meaning “facing the wind”.
According to our old timer, there was a dictorial ring to the name changing.
“Dere was this Mr. and Mrs…Dr. and Mrs…Alec Purdy living here,” he says. “They decided to change the name to Kemah, so they changed the name to Kemah”.
Was there a vote, perhaps at a town meeting or City Hall?
“Dere wasn’t no town meeting or City Hall,” he laughs. “Dr. and Mrs. Purdy just changed the name.”
What was the early Kemah like?
“Well, it was all open prairie and mesquite,” he remembers. “Dere was how many people…12 or 18? I guess about 18 people. Cattle and horses ran wild all over the place. Back then, dere wasn’t no channel. Clear Creed kinda made a bend back toward Seabrook like dis (describing a flat S) and den went out into the bay. The only way to across to Seabrook was an old cable ferry…you pulled on the cables like dis (describing hand over hand pulling). Ol’ Man Dudley ran the ferry, back and forth, back and forth…We called him Ol’ Man Bank T’ Bank. The ferry was free…it was run by the county. But it didn’t pay much, about $65 to $75 a month, I think. An dere was no days off.
The Kipps ran the first post office, located at what is now Harris and 5th. J. H. Kipp built a 1000 foot pier into Galveston Bay, and soon sun worshipers from Houston began to take advantage of it. Kemah gained a small reputation as a resort area. Kipp allowed his pier to be used free by swimmers and bathers.
But what did the early residents do for a living?
“Well, it was pretty rough. About the only thing, I guess, was crabbing…Crabbing and shrimping. We loaded the crabs into crates, put them on the train, and shipped them into Houston for sale at the city market.”
“Oh man, was shrimping easy then, you jus’ went out in a little boat, threw a little corn meal on the water, an threw a net over them. Dere wearn’t no drag nets, the. I mean, you could get a tub full…BIG shrimp, like dis (indicating about 8 inches) in 30 minutes.”
“Oh, and dere was two flowing wells, artesian flowing wells. Usually, the water came over the standpipes about two inches (indicating with thumb and forefinger) and flowed on off into a drainage ditch. But in the 1915 hurricane, dat water…I guess it was from the pressure of the wind and water on the land…shot straight out for about 100 feet.
At age 13, in the early 1900’s, our conversationalist began working as a hunting and fishing guide for well to do parties out of Houston, Galveston, and other cities. And when Prohibition came about, he found another sideline. “Oh, dem rum runners,” he recalls.
“Yeah, they’d wait for a dark, stormy night an’ come through the jetties at Galveston. If the Coast Guard didn’t catch ‘em, they’d come on up here and dock…usually over on the Seabrook side. I was runnin’ the ferry then, an’ I’d close it down and wait for them. See, they’d send somebody ahead an’ let me know they were comin’. About 2 o’clock in the mornin’, here they’d come, an’ I’d unlock the ferry an’ help em load up. They’d take the stuff over to trucks on the Kemah side, load it up an’ take it to Galveston. I never asked ‘em for anything, but they’d throw me some money or a few bottles and say, “Hey, thanks, kid.”
Didn’t the, uh, legality of the situation bother you?
“Aw, I was just a kid an’ didn’t think too much about it.”
Kemah itself seemed untouched by Prohibition. Gambling was wide open, and as the oldtimer relates, there was “plenty to drink. OH, dere was some good gambling joints then,” he says with a smile. “Dere was Humpy Kelly’s…dat was a GOOD gambling joint, and dere was the Blue Room, and dere was the…the…what was that other one?...The Chili Bowl.” Well, was there ever any trouble?
“Aw, no, no trouble I can think of. Dem people from Houston just came down here to have a good time. I can’t remember no shootin’ or killin’… they weren’t those kind of places. I mean, they were NICE.”
But the oldtimer was no longer a “kid.” He went to work for the Clarion Oil Company and began working on the company boats. Eventually, he was captain and all ‘round maintenance man on an executive yacht. In 1921 his wife’s father opened the first butcher shop in Kemah. Kemah’s growth was slow but steady. It still was best known as a center for frolic and relaxation.
“Dere was a fine restaurant…it was run by “Pete the Greek” Astradas. ‘Pete the Greek’, he rented boats and had good food, but he didn’t have no gambling. And dere was a famous beer joint, Dan Johnson’s beer joint, where the post office used to be.”
“The mail kept comin’ to that joint for a long time.” With World War II, the oldtimer went to work in the Seabrook Shipyards building sub chasers. In the ‘50s, the Clear Creek Channel was opened by the Corps of Engineers, and a large shrimp fleet began to assemble. In 1961 Hurricane Carla almost wiped out Kemah’s business district, but the challenge seemed to spur interest, and Kemah’s growth as a fishing industry center began in earnest.
And what has the growth meant to the oldtimer and his wife?
“Noise,” his wife states flatly. “Cars, noise, and dogs barking.”
“And that switch engine that wakes us up at 5:30 in the mornin’,” he adds.
But they probably wouldn’t live anywhere else. You get the feeling that Kemah is their own. They’ve seen it survive hurricanes, prohibition, depression, and politics. And that sitting room is just too comfortable.
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