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Wilber M. Lee


Captain Lee
Spanish-American War
Organized Company M
in 1889

Colonel Wilber M. Lee
Mexican American War
World War I

 Brigader General Lee
Oconto County's
Most Distinguished Soldier - 
Three Star General

Contributed by Dave Cisler
from the scrapbook of Miriam C. Barribeau CISLER

AFTER 87 YEARS OF BUSINESS at the 'same old stand", the doors of the Lee Studio in Oconto were closed this month as the present proprietor, Morgan Lee, announced his retirement. Inescapably, the news prompted a host of nostalgic memories as townspeople recalled the day they sat for a graduation picture, or the time they carried in a son or daughter — now parents themselves - for a treasured baby picture, or even of walks on summer evenings that inevitably ended at the studio to see whose picture was in the display window.


Not only has the studio been part of the downtown scene since 1883, but the name of its founder, General Wilbur Lee, has become closely associated with much that is best in the City's long history. As the city's only soldier to attain the rank of general, his character and deportment were also such as to engender the affection, as well as the pride of the town. The summation of that feeling was expressed by another distinguished early citizen, Congressman David Classon, at ceremonies honoring the General's return from the trenches of France in 1918. Said Classon; "As a businessman, as a good husband and father, as a man of affairs, as an officer, and as always an honest, upright and patriotic citizen, we have watched him and he has not been found wanting."

Wilbur M. Lee was born in Neosha, Dodge County, Wisconsin, in 1862. and moved to DePere as a youth. Later he moved to Green Bay where he learned the photographer's trade and married Mary Freward. On January 1, 1883, they came to Oconto and Lee built the studio on Park avenue near Main street where it has remained, though altered and expanded, to the present day. The Lees made their home on Turner avenue nearby, the present Gerald Dufek home.

Lee's stature as a professional photographer was soon recognized and most of the major events of the city's early history, as well as its prominent and less well-known citizens, were captured by his camera for posterity. He also found time to become active in civic affairs, serving as the city's mayor from 1896-1898 and later as city treasurer. It was another calling, however, that was to become the consuming interest of his life.

It began in 1889 when Lee was instrumental in organizing the city's first company of volunteer militia, old Company M of the Second Regiment of the Wisconsin National Guard., He served for a while in an enlisted status as quartermaster and then, on May 2, 1889, was sworn in as the unit's first captain. Nine years later, with the sinking of the Maine and America's involvement in the Spanish-American War, Lee and his men were first mobilized for active duty. While enroute to action in Puerto Rico, the train stopped in Chicago and an interesting commentary on the young officer was given by a relative of the S. W. Fords who was present at the railroad station and wrote;
"When we found the Oconto boys they were eating their dinners, consisting of sandwiches and a can of coffee and hard tack. Captain Lee seemed to look on the sober side, saying that he had to be a father to them all, He seemed very proud of his boys."

The return of Captain Lee and his company was the cause for jubilant celebration in the city. As the train pulled in at 8:45 p.m. on September 9, 1898, bells rang, bands played and every steam whistle in town screamed a welcome. People lined the streets to cheer as the company marched to the armory where a lunch had been prepared. A few days later everyone fell out again for a big Homecoming dance held at Turner Hall.

By the time Company M was again mustered in to fight in the Mexican Border Patrol action in 1916, Lee had been promoted to colonel. They were home from that engagement only a short time before the outbreak of World War I and once again Lee was back in uniform, this time in command of the 127th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 64th Brigade who came to be known as "Les Terribles".

For six months Colonel Lee fought under heavy fire on five fronts in France. Then, on September 17, 1918, he was relieved of his command at Chateau Thierry because of age. Again he was accorded a hero's welcome as all along the line his train was stopped so people at Gillett, Oconto Falls and other stations could come aboard to pay him tribute. At Oconto he was met at the station by literally thousands of people who escorted him to his home along streets illuminated by red flares.

A few days later a formal welcome was held on the court house lawn, attended by 5,000 residents of the county and officiated over by Congressman Classon. The congressman began his address in the somewhat flowery rhetoric of the day by saying:
"This splendid outpouring of our people, the music, the lights and the spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm are to do honor to our own . . . our boy, our man, our citizen, our soldier, our leader of men, our dear Colonel Lee."


At the end of World War I the Wisconsin National Guard was reorganized and Lee was commissioned a brigadier general. On May 29, 1926, at the age of 64, he retired from military service. Sometime later, in 1943, a room of the Beyer Home Museum in Oconto was dedicated to his honor and Lee presented the Oconto County Historical Society with several mementoes of military significance, including the uniform he wore during the Spanish American War.

During Lee's absences, the studio continued to do business with his daughters, Ora Lee and Dorothy.

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