Since 1968, Lester Lehman spent countless hours at various libraries, museums and courthouses, compiling historical information pertaining to New London and its citizens. Driven by his own curiosity, Lester felt the need to index, organize and compile information gleaned from tax rolls, newspapers, assessment rolls, specific family genealogies and other resources.
This long-standing commitment to New London resulted in over 40 books of information being written , spanning over 150 years of New London’s history.
Lester donated the largest body of his work to the New London Public Museum (NLPM) in 2006. Assorted titles include: New London Mayors, Andrae Mfg./Edison Wood Products/Simmons, Civil War Relating to the New London Area, and Chronology of Johnston’s Landing.
After receiving the collection, volunteer students from NLHS Castle Charter School program and local resident, Dee Sorenson, transferred each page of his books to protective sleeves.
At the time, NLPM Director Angie Seidl stated, “Lester was humbled to think that his books were regarded with such importance.”
All items donated by Lester support the museum’s existing collection, however, two series of books in particular are highly acclaimed by museum staff and other researchers.
The first series of books are cross-referenced indexes of Lester’s research. Consuming most of forty years, Lester categorized and cross-referenced this information according to subject (i.e. Accident, Agriculture, Athletics, Automotive, Biographies, Buildings, Businesses, Education, Marriages, Obituaries, Religion, etc.). Totaling 17 three-ringed binders, the indexes are referred to as Lester’s Books by the museum staff.
The second series of books treasured by the museum are hand-copied versions of an 1860 Federal Census Report that resides in Madison. After hours of referring to this census book on microfilm in Appleton, Lehman felt it would save time to have a copy for himself.
Not only does Lester Lehman’s Census Book contain information from the original census, he continually added information found about each individual listed. Eventually he typed the information. This reference is very beneficial to anyone researching the Civil War and family descendents.
Vicky Krznarich was a New London librarian in the 1970s when Lester became acquainted with the microfilm machine.
Vicki remembers, “Lester was always so polite and unassuming. He told us if anyone else wanted the machine he would get off.” He would spend hours on it each day as a regular patron. The old library didn’t have a lot of plug ins, and the microfiche reader screen sat on top of the machine itself, in a very precarious position. “The old wood stool used to sit upon was very uncomfortable, but he never complained.”
Besides researching within the City of New London, Lester visited other cities, including Waupaca, Appleton, Oshkosh, and Madison.
Lester Lehman’s life story began in Germania (near Tigerton, Wisconsin), where he grew up. The eldest of eight children, his father had a 160-acre farm. His mother had been a teacher at Hillside School before she married.
Lester enlisted in the U.S. Navy on August 20, 1941, and became a Yeoman Second Class. Serving his country for the next four years, Lester’s experiences in the U.S. Navy include the first and final voyage of the U.S.S. Hornet. Lester survived the bombing and ultimate sinking of this ship, after it sailed with Doolittle in Tokyo and the battle of Midway – where they lost every plane in Squadron 8. Lester created a personal log of his daily activities on ship. The condensed copy of Personal Log: USS Hornet, was recently donated to NLPM.
In the Navy, Lester learned typing, indexing and cataloguing skills, as he was assigned to help keep track of engineering and machinery records on the ship.
After returning to Wisconsin from his service in the military, Lester married New London native, Eva Marasch, on February 12, 1944. The couple resided in Clintonville for two years before moving to New London. Lester provided for his family by working at Eggers Industries in Neenah, where they manufactured doors.
He and Eva had two children. Son, Marc, now lives in Madison and works in computer support, for the State of WI Health and Family Services. He is named after Adm. Marc Mitchell, first skipper of the USS Hornet. Daughter, Cheryl, is an administrative assistant for three transplant surgeons at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Over the years, Lester gained notoriety as a local historian, and at age 86, he remains a modest and unassuming man. When asked why he committed so much of his life to this endeavor, he simply states, “Out of curiosity.”
Lester said goodbye to Eva last September (2007), and speaks lovingly of his wife of 63 years, saying that she was a devout Christian and good homemaker.
Seidl states, “Overall, the subjects included in Lester’s Books are vital to understanding the shaping of New London and are a huge asset to the museum collection.”
Seidl added that, as a direct result of these references, museum exhibits and programs have expanded. In 2006, the Walking Tour of Historic Homes was created, featuring fifteen homes with significant history or architectural styles. In 2007, Voices from the Past Cemetery Walk was introduced, where visitors paused at eight living history vignettes, meeting people from New London’s past.
Currently, the NLPM staff and volunteers are forming the Walking Tour of Historic Downtown, which will kick-off on June 7, 2008. Taking a step back in time, this tour will highlight business owners and businesses with significant history relating to New London. Each of these tours have benefitted because Lester’s Books led the way for research.
Museum Assistant Director Alice Gilman concurs, “If struggles or dead ends arise, a simple phone call directly to Lester can get us on the right path. Lester has an impeccable memory and has become a walking encyclopedia of New London history.”
Housed at the museum, the books are accessible not only to museum staff and volunteers, but also to the public. School students use Lester’s Books as a resource for reports. Local organizations use them for references, and individuals from near and far use them for a variety of reasons, but mostly for genealogy research.
Lester quietly admits that he is most proud of his Civil War book, stating that more boys died in that war than any war since, and it is a tribute to them. His Federal Census updates are another accomplishment of which he is proud.
Seidl states, “Lester has taken over 150 years of information and condensed and organized it in a way that will benefit generations to come. His work is not only invaluable to the New London Public Museum, but to anyone with connections to New London.”