Moon Lim Lee's Legacy
THE WEAVERVILLE JOSS HOUSE In 1985, Carole Lee remembers getting a call from then-President Ronald Reagan giving his condolences on the death of her father, Moon Lim Lee. Reagan referred to Lee as “a good man and a great friend.” Duane Heryford, who worked for Lee from 1953-1963, called him “a quiet, mild-mannered man who got the job done and loved people.”
Moon Lim Lee’s “get the job done” approach is the reason the Weaverville Joss House is a state historic park. It is the oldest still-in-use Chinese temple in California.
Lee was born in 1903 in Weaverville, but the place Lee holds in history dates back to before his birth when his grandfather immigrated from China to a place in California known to the Chinese as Gum Shan (the mountain of gold). About 1853, the Chinese built a place of Taoist worship in Weaverville that they named Won Lim Miao (Won Lim Temple). This temple burned in 1861, was rebuilt and burned again in 1873. The following year, residents of Weaverville donated money - some donated their life savings – to construct a new temple. That temple still stands today and is known as the Joss House, or The Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds.
In the 1880s, about 2,000 Chinese people resided in Weaverville. A half-century later, only 16 Chinese residents remained. In 1938, when there was little community interest, Moon Lim Lee was appointed trustee of the Joss House. According to Heryford, Lee’s intent was to preserve the Joss House. He felt that it needed to stay open as a place of worship and as a tourist destination. He began lobbying the state of California to take over the Joss House, and in 1956, after almost 20 years, his efforts paid off and the Joss House officially became a state historic park.
“He did not want it refurbished,” says his daughter, Carole. “By maintaining the Joss House as it was when it was included in the state park system, it shows how the temple was used.” Carole, the last remaining descendant of the Chinese gold rush immigrants who still lives in Weaverville, was baptized in the Joss House, as were her daughter and grandson. As a child, Carole remembers her family cleaning and decorating the temple in preparation for Chinese New Year celebrations. Each year, the Lees would open their home to the public for dinner to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Everyone was invited and hundreds would show up. The community dinner tradition continues, but is now sponsored by the Weaverville Rotary.
Though Lee worked tirelessly to improve the life of his family and community, he was no stranger to adventure. In 1928, he was the first person to land a plane in Trinity County. He loved fast cars, particularly big Buicks. In the 1940s, he could get from Redding to Weaverville in 41 minutes or less. Once, three highway patrol officers took up the chase to catch him speeding up the mountain, but he got away clean – they couldn’t keep up. He probably didn’t mention that when - in the early 1960s - Reagan appointed him the first minority state highway commissioner.
Lee began his entrepreneurial career as a truck farmer. In 1938, he bought property across the street from the Joss House and opened Lee’s Supermarket, which he sold a decade later to open a hardware store. Heryford tells a story about Lee instructing him to deliver a refrigerator to a family. When Heryford asked about collecting payment, Lee simply told him that the family needed a refrigerator and couldn’t afford one. Carole Lee says her father’s philosophy was, “If you can, help those who have less than you.” He also instructed her, “Never make fun of people and always be grateful for what you have.”
Years after their passing, Moon Lim Lee and his wife Dorothy are still giving back to the community in the form of the Moon and Dorothy Lee Scholarship Fund. Each year since 1986, this scholarship has helped a high school senior who needs financial assistance to attend college. To date, the scholarship fund has awarded more than a quarter-million dollars.
“Lee believed in doing what was good for the community,” Heryford says. “His philosophy was take a little and leave a little.” It seems he’s left far more than he took, including a legacy that will be valued for many generations to come. •
February 5: Dim Sum meal at the Civil Defense Hall at 6pm. Includes live entertainment, silent and live auction and a Lion Dance. Admission is $35. Sponsored by Weaverville Rotary.
February 12: Traditional Chinese Lion Dance, refreshments and kids’ activities at the Joss House, 11 am to 2 pm. Admission is free.