Albert Lees, jr.
Albert Lees, jr. was interviewed by Mary Giles on August 14, 1975. He spoke about his childhood, his success, and his plans for the future.
Have you lived here all your life?
You have done many types of work, how did you happen to arrive at this business of the supermarket?
I had a hardware business, and when the mill outlets came into being, the hardware business took quite a decline, and I thought it over and thought, ‘Why don’t I stimulate some business and bring people in by putting in some groceries?’ That seemed to be an active type business, so we put in some groceries, mixed in with the hardware, made it more than a general store, and as time went along, the tail wagged the dog and we became a grocery store, and the hardware went into the background until now, we only have impulse items in the way of traditional hardware.
Back in 1950, it was a general store without the groceries.
You’ve done a lot for the town that people don’t know about. What are some of the things you have done for the town that people don’t know about?
Well, that’s a hard question to answer. I really try to stay in the background. I’ve always thought that a person, who gave something and wanted all kinds of recognition for it, was giving to try and receive something back. I have never used my business or anything like that for self-centered interests so to speak. I like to stay in the background.
Tell me something of your life as a child in Westport, what kind of games you played, and what school was like, other kinds of recreation. Let’s start with the kinds of fun you had.
Well, of course, we did the traditional things in the winter – such as skating.
And where did you skate?
Well, we skated on the ponds in the woods right back of here (the home I live in now). Of course, in those days, the 1930s, it was a major trip to go from here to Fall River or New Bedford. It was about an hour’s drive over the old roads and it would be quite a treat to go in annually to buy a new pair of shoes, what they called the ‘high cuts’ in those days. They came laced up almost to your knee and they had a jack knife pocket on the side. You never did have the jack knife, but you had the pocket.
Without realizing it, a lot of our play was work oriented. It was work with the horses and bringing in the hay, and we didn’t think of it as work. It was pleasurable to work, so to speak.
We probably went to the city, I would say, oh, probably about once a month. It was also a treat to go in and get restaurant fish and chips. We used to go to a place in Fall River called Tattersalls; they’ve been out of business for about thirty years or better, but that was THE place to go, and you could smell the fish cooking, and for a country boy to go to the city was quite an accomplishment.
Quite frankly, I didn’t enjoy school. The same teacher, Charlotte Medeiros, taught me and later my children, at the Point School.
In those days, Dr. Burt used to come down and give the inoculations. As I think back, it was quite a thing because he used to give the inoculations in front of the schoolroom. You’d be sitting there at your desk and he’d call up one child at a time, and you’d go up and it was almost like going to the guillotine or something, sitting there watching the children scream and holler. Fortunately, my last name began with an ‘L,’ so I got mine over with relatively fast. Someone named Wood, or something with a ‘W’ had a problem. He had to sit there and watch all the kids crying.
I went to the Booth Corner School, which is just north of the Village Garage, that used to be a schoolhouse with no indoor plumbing at all, and then I went from there to the Factory School, and then to the High School, which is now the Milton Earle School.
Actually, I wasn’t a good student. In those days they would think it was lack of attention. Today, they would think there wasn’t enough challenge, and I’m not sure but what, I never went on to college, but I must have a certain amount of intelligence or I couldn’t have accomplished what I have.
In music, we were placed in categories. There were the bluebirds, etc., and then there were myself and Tom Earle and Bob Wood who ended up in the ‘crows.’ We were in the back row.
There was a lady down at the Point by the name of Minnie Robbins, who was really a nice, nice person. She had a radio program in New Bedford, and there were five of us who were all poor singers who went over and sang on her radio program. That was back in the days when radio was still a novelty. We sang ’America the beautiful’ – I can still remember it.
Getting back to what was pleasurable, this was play, this sort of thing. We didn’t seem to need the amusement, parties and the sort of things they need today.
Did you work after school?
I worked after school, worked before school and actually, because my father went into business after we left the farm here, at Westport Point. Backing that up, he was in business in Westport Point and then things got very, very bad, and he went into farming, having the business in the summers, and then when things got a little better, after the depression and getting on towards World War II, he went back into business full time and we used to open (the store) at 5:00 in the morning and close at 11:00 at night.
Where was this business?
This was right on the wharf, at the fish market. He bought it in 1929 originally; it’s been in the family since 1929.
I went into the supermarket business, well it basically just happened. The challenge was there, the opportunities were there, and I really just took advantage, so to speak, of the opportunities.
How do you think it became as large as it is?
Well, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I studied it in great depth and most of the changes I’ve made, and the enlargements I’ve made, have been after a lot of research. I did a lot of it myself, of course, knowing the town; I got into my automobile and drove up and down the roads and projected the population increase. We’ve had sort of a population explosion in the last five or eight years, but I had projected that prior to this. Maybe it was due to intuition or native intelligence or whatever, but fortunately, I was able to put the pieces together and say, ‘Well now, next year the town can support a business of such and such a size,’ so I would build prior to the town’s building in anticipation of what was going to happen, and that even happened in relation to this last addition. My business has mushroomed, and it almost appears as though it happened overnight, but it didn’t, for years I’ve built towards it. It happened to fall into place, but it’s something that I had preplanned.
When you think of retirement, what does that mean to you?
Well, I’ve put a lot of thought into retirement. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who can work as hard as I’ve worked all these years and then sit down in a chair and do nothing, and I love to fish, and if you’re talking retirement at age 65 or something like that, I don’t think I would have the physical stamina. I don’t think my legs would take it. So retirement to me at this point in time, if I have my wish, would be to do something different. So, my projected plan, my children will be educated, my mortgage will be paid off on my home, but I should not like to do just nothing, not just stop work, but I’d like to go into something, some other completely unrelated type of work. I don’t know how to describe it, but I would like to do some good. I’d like to be able to go out and help other people, because I’ve been very, very fortunate in my lifetime, much more so than many other people. Whether this means helping other people in business, such as the SCORE program, I don’t know. It hasn’t been worked out, and I don’t think I would try to work at it, I thought I would just let it happen.
As you think of this, do you think of your business carrying on without you, or do you think of turning it over to someone else?
Right now, I’ve been having discussions with my son, who’s going to be a senior in college, and he is being placed in a difficult position. I don’t want him to think that I’m pressuring him to come into the business, but I don’t want him to think that I’m pushing him out either. We’ve been sort of fencing back and forth, and speaking of my son in particular, I think he has enough ambition and enough drive, that he doesn’t want to have something handed to him, so that someone ten or fifteen years from now could say, ‘Well, you couldn’t have made it on your own, your father gave it to you.’
In answer to what I would do with it, I would only sell it to the type of individual whom I thought would be good to Westport. I’ve prided myself on that I’ve tried to be fair. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but when someone comes in, and they buy a pound of hamburger; there’s 16 ounces in that pound. We can make errors, everybody’s human, but I’ve never tried to take the attitude that I was going to try to get all that I could out of everybody.
Do you have plans for travel?
I love to travel. My business has mushroomed to such a point that now I don’t have time. Of course, I’ve been to Europe; I’ve been to England and Scotland. I’m of Scotch heritage and I have visited with many of my relatives up there. They’re a good people. The people make a country. The only other place that I really enjoyed as much as Scotland, well, I’m very American, I think the United States is the best country in the world – is Holland. I think the Dutch people are beautiful people.
We’ve talked a little bit about this next point; I want to talk with you about. You do have two children. Do you think that they feel that Westport was a good place to grow up in?
They do think that Westport is a good place to grow up in, and as they grow older, they resist the idea of moving to any other part of the country. For their birthday, I gave each one of them a building lot on Horseneck Road in Westport; and I think that meant more to them than anything else I could have done, so they are very much Westport oriented. There’s no question that their growing up was very different from mine. Now my son is 21 and he doesn’t ever remember not having a television, so he grew up from a tiny baby, and my daughter also, knowing the world news and they are more sophisticated than I was, that’s for sure. They’ve been water skiing, camping and had Little League. They were not as work-oriented as my generation was.
It doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel as though I was denied anything by not having all these other pleasures, it was just the conditions of the time. My children never grew up on a farm and what we considered fun on a farm, they would consider hard work.
I grew up on a farm about a mile from here, and it used to be a real treat to take a hike down through the woods and come to this home here, and visit with Mabel and watch her goats. She even gave us a goat one time, ‘Daisy Mae’ we called her, lived in the house with us, just as they lived with her. Yes! To walk back would take up perhaps half a day and it was a very pleasurable time, and I think that some of the kids growing up today are not aware that simple pleasures are just as great as going to the movies today, because I’d rather go down to Horseneck Beach and sit on a sand dune and look at the ocean, you know.
I don’t think the young would really want the experiences we had. It’s a whole new world to them. They are so sophisticated from watching television, that they don’t even watch those rockets that take off and fly around in outer space. I’m still amazed by them, but to my children, it’s such a normal, every day thing.
But then, I think they’re having fun in their own way.