Lee’s Taxidermy: Three generations of a Fauquier family have grown the business they love
When Francis Lee left his family’s 18th century farm in The Plains in 1942 to enlist in World War II, he knew he was on the cusp of many new experiences. However, one introduction may have taken him a bit by surprise and set the direction for his life. While stationed in Austria, Francis met a taxidermist who introduced him to the trade. He was immediately drawn to the process due to his lifelong interest in wildlife. Upon his return home in 1945, Francis went on to study taxidermy and began offering the service to friends who hunted. It was five more years before Francis decided to open a business at the farm. Today, Francis’s son, Lewis, and grandson, Stephen, continue the business he began nearly seventy years ago.
Having spent time in the shop as a teenager, Francis’ son Lewis had more than a basic understanding of the process by the time he graduated high school. When he was considering college, Francis offered to pay for his education in museum training if he were to continue the family business. “I took him up on his offer and went out to the University of Iowa. I had no idea what I would find west of the Mississippi, but I would say that the taxidermy at that university rivals what can be found at the Smithsonian,” says Lewis. Lewis changed majors part way through college and finished with a degree in business. He worked for Goodyear for a few years before moving back to the farm and taking over the business.
Taxidermy is a complex art of preserving an animal skin or pelt in poses that mimic those found in nature. Ancient taxidermy can be traced to Egyptian times, whereas the more modern method is only a couple hundred years old. “There are beautifully preserved animals using arsenic at the University of Iowa, kept under glass to contain the toxicity, that date to the late 19th century.” says Lewis.
The Lees’ shop occupies a small building adjacent to the Lee family’s paternal home. A large gallery space inside the front door displays birds, large cats, and deer busts. A small bear cub sits off in one corner; “That one was struck and killed by a car and was brought to me to preserve. The customer said his wife wouldn’t let him keep it, so I ended up with it.” Behind the reception desk on the wall are more mounted animals; one stands out among the rest. “The deer in the middle,” says Lewis, “is the second deer my father preserved in 1951.” A small plaque beneath the deer commemorates the piece. “When my father began the business, the animal forms were made from papier-mâché. Not much has changed since then, except the forms are now Styrofoam,” he explains.
A door next to the front desk leads to the main work space. Here, animals are mounted in varying stages of completion. The backroom of the shop is the tannery. “We mainly use commercial tanneries in Pennsylvania, but we have one here when we need it,” he says. Lewis explains the process of preserving an animal: “the customer brings their trophy to us and we have the hide tanned, and it is then fitted to a foam form.” The forms are made to replicate any natural position and show muscle tone. Fish and certain parts of birds that lose their color during the preservation process are meticulously repainted, which adds another element of art to the process.
The shop has preserved just about every animal: bears, deer, moose, fish, and even crabs. The Lees work with large game as well, and have even mounted a 13 ½ foot-long crocodile that was taken in Africa — a very different process. “All trophies from overseas undergo a lengthy process to ensure no diseases are transported into the country. Inspections occur in the country where the animal is hunted, as well as in the states when the tanned hide arrives,” he continues. Quarantine time for overseas hunts usually takes one year.
Although Lewis explains the process modestly, the sheer amount of knowledge he has amassed through studies and practice is overwhelming and touches on nearly every subject from anatomy, chemistry, biology, art, and, of course, business. “I spent ten years as the president of the Virginia Taxidermy Association and helped to develop the rules that all taxidermists follow,” he says. “This helped to eliminate ambiguity from the process and ensure the animal was taken legally from anywhere in the world.” Every pelt that comes through Lee’s Taxidermy is documented for the game warden who makes regular inspections.
For instance, when a deer comes to the shop, Lewis asks when and where it was taken and asks to see a hunting license or driver’s license if the animal was taken on the hunter’s own property. From here, Lewis assigns it a control number. All paperwork for each animal must be traced back to the assigned control number.
Over the past five decades, Lewis Lee has grown the business his father began and has contributed to the trade by assisting with setting the rules and regulations for taxidermy statewide. He has shared his love of nature with his sons who also hunt, fish, and participate in the business. While the Lees preserve trophies brought back by hunters worldwide, they also preserve what matters most to them. Their family values are strong and evident in both the commitment they have to continuing the legacy of Francis Lee and the connection to their family farm, where most of the family still lives in one of the homes on the roughly 300-acre property. When asked how he feels about working and living so close to his family, Lewis responds, “I feel badly for families who don’t live close to one another.” Lewis considers himself blessed to work in a trade that inspires him and to share it with his family.