Saunders County NEGenWeb Project

The following biography and pictures were submitted by John Fisken,

"One of the histories states that daughter Annabel was the first white child born in Saunders. I don't have documentation available, but I do remember seeing in an obit that James Renwick Lee, the second child, was born in Wahoo, not Fremont. To confuse things further, in an article from the Wahoo Wasp dates Dep 6, 1920, it states that William Boyd Lee, the third child, was the first white child born in Wahoo in 1871."

James Martin Lee, the Wahoo years, life on the Frontier


James M. Lee and wife Sarah M. Johnston Lee

James M. Lee and wife Sarah M. Johnston Lee
Picture taken about 1883
James M. Lee was born in Ballabay Ireland June 24, 1830
Died in Clarinda, Iowa August 16, 1909
Sarah M. Lee was born in Chillicothe, O. March 5, 1843
Died in Clarinda, Iowa August 22, 1927

In early 1870, James returned to Wahoo, in company with his brothers John and William, and four other men, and made claim for a townsite. The company had originally named the site Leesville, but that was quickly changed to Wauhoo. In 1877, the spelling was officially changed to Wahoo. There was already a settler there by the name of Moses Stocking. I have found items that talk about the Stockings as either rough and illiterate, or models of civic behavior. You make the call. However, early in the days of Wahoo, the homes of James and his brother Thomas were visited by a group of men who wanted the Lees out, and were looking for Thomas and James to string them up. I don't know what the result was. I do know that none of the Lee brothers are prominently mentioned in any Saunders County or Wahoo histories I have come across.

James already had a house in Wahoo, and had been serving as postmaster since July of 1869. In 1870 he built and operated a dry goods store, and ran the post office from there until December of 1870. James was again postmaster from June of 1871 until February of 1874. The store was owned jointly by James and John R. Lee, and was on lots 5 and 6 of block 2 in Wahoo. The location was on the north side of highway 96, one block west of Chestnut. There is an entry in the Deed books for Saunders County showing the land for the store was purchased for $10.00 in January of 1874.

He also owned a store in company with Charles Beebe. Charles was married to Mary Lee, the daughter of James' brother William. This store was on 2nd street on the northwest corner of 2nd and Chestnut. The county deed books show Lee and Beebe obtaining the property at the same time James and John bought the land for the other store. The Lee and Beebe land was obtained through a Quit Claim Deed, and was lots 7 and 8 of block 1. Second Street no longer intersects Chestnut. The street was vacated in order that the railroad could go through that block. The land the stores stood on is now owned by the Saunders County Historical Society, and the County museum now sits on the site.

The Lees owned a lot of land in and around Wahoo. In March of 1995, I visited Wahoo and looked up James, Sarah and Thomas Lee in the Deed records, and between 1873 and 1894, there are 31 records of the above persons making some sort of real estate purchase.

There are a lot of firsts in Wahoo attributed to James. In addition to being a founder and the first postmaster, he was responsible for bringing the first religious service to the town. In 1869, James had heard of a missionary, the Revered Giddings, and invited the preacher to his home to give a sermon. Apparently Rev. Giddings enjoyed his stay, as he organized the first church in Wahoo. He and Sarah later became members of the Wahoo Reformed Presbyterian Church of Wahoo, which was located at the corner of 5th and Walnut. The church closed in the 1910s, and parts of the church were used to build other buildings in town, some of which are still standing.

James was also involved in the moving of the county seat from Ashland to Wahoo in 1873. His brother John was more involved, but the both of them wound up going to Lincoln to present a petition to the legislature to move the county seat. The Wahoo residents won, and have been possessors of the county seat ever since.

As those early years went on, James became more and more active in community affairs. While never seeking public office, he served on the Wahoo school board as treasurer in 1871, and in 1872 helped organize a union Sunday School.

James and Sarah were parents of nine children: Samuel Thomas, James Renwick, William Boyd, Annabel, Rufus E., Walter Martin, Elizabeth Jane, Mary Alice, and Sara Henrietta (Sadie).

In the 1870 Census, James is listed as a grocer, with a real property value of $7,000 and personal property value of $1,700. He was living with his wife, the two eldest children, and a Mary Olson who is listed as a house servant. Mary was born in Denmark, and was 15 years old. Mary was united in marriage to James' brother John on January 1st, 1974 in Dodge County, near Fremont. The marriage certificate bears the number 188. The person officiating the ceremony appears to be James Willner. The handwriting is hard to read.

The 1880 census shows James and Sarah living on 6th street in Wahoo with all seven children. Samuel was by this time 13 years old. James Renwick is listed as "Rennie J." and was 11, 7 year old Annabel is listed as "Anna B.", William, 9, was "Willie, Elizabeth is "Bessie", and two years old. Rufus was 6 and Walter was 4. In addition to the children, James and Sarah had two boarders and two servants.

One boarder was Samuel Edholm, who was born in Sweden and was single at 23. He was the clerk in James' store. The other boarder was Charley Nelson, and he worked machinery. He was also born in Sweden. The two house servants were Tilly Smith and Mary Smith. Tilly was born in Sweden and was 15 years old. Mary was 14 and born in Bohemia.

I was able to visit that house on 6th street in March of 1995. It is at the northwest corner of 6th and Walnut streets, on lot 12 of block 11. The house has a living room, parlor, dining room, and kitchen downstairs, and only three bedrooms upstairs. It must have been very crowded as there were 13 people living in the house at one point. The house is presently unoccupied, and is badly deteriorated. The whole block was originally owned by James, who granted a patent to J.J. Hawthorne. On April 3, 1878, they bought lot 12 from the Barnes family for $50.00. The legal title was vested in Sarah.

The Lees lived in that house until September 5, 1900, when they sold it for $1,000 to Hans Hakanson. The current owner of the property is Bill Lindley, who owns a clothing store in town. He paid just over $50,000 in 1974 for it. It was through the cooperation of Merlin Johnson, a partner in the business that I was able to tour the house.

In that same year of 1880, both joy and sadness visited the Lee home. Little Mary Alice Lee was brought into this world, and also departed. She is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Wahoo near her grandparents Thomas and Ann.

Some more notes on James and the Wahoo years. The Wahoo Independent of 8/19/1880 notes that "J.M. Lee & Co. have been having an immense sign painted on their agriculture building." There is a note in a Wahoo Wasp that the Wahoo Grain & Stock company was organized on Feb 1st, 1881, with James Lee as president. I have been unable to find out any other information about this business, or the implement dealership James ran after giving up the store.

James was a strict teetotaler, and very outspoken in his attitude against the twin vices of alcohol and gambling. This is due to the teachings of his family, and of the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church, of which he was a member. The church in Wahoo was located on the Northeast corner of 5th and Walnut, right across from the county courthouse.

This attitude of James proved to be dangerous. It seems that in the early 1850's, a number of 'Bohemians' started moving into the Wahoo area, and apparently were ardent supporters of drinking and gambling. Of course, James did not approve. As a result, while walking from his store in February of 1885, he was waylaid. His family was waiting at home for him to arrive so they might go to a church meeting, and saw him come in the door with blood running out of his head, ears and nose.

Although he recovered from these injuries, he was never quite the same again, and his businesses were, if not swindled from him, taken from him by less than honest means. His sons did not do much to help stop the loss, as they were not very interested in the mercantile business. He never showed further interest in business, nor in his family for that matter. However, he did attend the wedding of his eldest son, Samuel to Mamie Thomas at the Thomas home November 15, 1888, and is listed on the marriage certificate as a witness.

James Lee Family, 1905

James Lee Family, 1905
back row: S.T., J. Ren, Annabelle, Elizabeth (Bessie), William, Rufus
front row: Sadie, James Martin, Sarah Margaret, Walter

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