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Friday, July 1, 2016

More on Willis TX history

It's a bit ironic to me that people are living in Willis TX and know a lot about the history.  They could tell me stories (I hope) about where my grandfather, George Elmore Rogers, had been born in 1877.  But their stories wouldn't include my grandfather probably.  So I can keep imagining what his boyhood might have been like.  I haven't found any record of where he lived between ages 2 and 22, so I'm assuming some of that time continued to be in his birthplace.  Here are some more facts, photos and assumptions about Willis, TX.  Thanks to Traces of Texas on Facebook, as well as The City of Willis Texas, and the Handbook for Texas Online.

Ah, more history of the town emerges. A cigar box with the daughter of the owner's picture leads to this...
WILLIS CIGAR FACTORY. Willis Cigar Factory, one of eight cigar-manufacturing operations in Willis, was founded in the 1870s by Capt. Thomas Wesley Smith, a Civil War veteran and former sheriff. Smith moved to Texas as a boy in 1845 and was involved in a mercantile interest, which he moved to Willis in 1872 before he entered the tobacco business. Area farmers found the Montgomery County climate and soil conditions favorable for tobacco production, and high quality local varieties, including Sumatra and a type from the Abajo district of Cuba, won international awards in Chicago and Paris. Prisoners from the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville were used for labor in the tobacco fields. The business flourished in the 1880s and 1890s, but began to decline after the Spanish-American War. Owen Smith took over the firm after his father's death in 1901, and the business failed to compete when tariff laws on Cuban tobacco were lifted and employees demanded higher wages. Labor dissatisfaction became apparent when employees began to load gunpowder, or caps, into the cigars. The original factory building was abandoned by 1910 and burned in the 1930s.  Source:
Remember a former post where I showed a photo of those prisoners working the tobacco fields.
1890s photo of the Carson Morris Comany store, with a small Millinery next door.

1912 map of Willis, Texas

The intersection of Interstate 45 and Highway 1097, looking north, present day Willis, TX.
My Houston cousin says she drives this route every day on her job!
May 2016, aerial view showing planned roadwork, Willis, TX.

 A photo (undated) of Dr. W. Powell who features prominently in the early history of Willis and in the communities locally that preceded it. Dr. Powell migrated to Texas, served as an Asst. Surgeon with Hood's Brigade in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, moved to Willis in 1872 where he became the leading doctor in town, delivering dozens of babies during his career and traveling to sick patients by buggy. Dr. Powell also owned the first motorized vehicle in Montgomery County, invented a bandage truss for hernia's and his home at the corner of Wood/Stewart Streets still stands. The home, built in 1872, has been significantly reduced in size since Dr. Powell's heydey when it was used at times as a makeshift hospital. The house was purchased in 1946 by Justice of the Peace R. Jordy and was the site of over 100 wedding ceremonies. Dr. Powell, and his home as well, could rightfully say they've served Willis providently.

Home in Montgomery County, TX
The daughter of prominent Montgomery merchant Peter Willis (namesake of the city of Willis) was named Magnolia and was born in her parents’ 1854 home in Montgomery, which was named for her: “Magnolia.”
After the Civil War, Peter Willis and his brother Richard Willis moved their families to Galveston where their mercantile business flourished. Magnolia Willis grew up to marry Galveston entrepreneur, George Sealy, who in 1911 named his new petroleum company for his wife—Magnolia Petroleum Company, (which later became part of Mobile Oil.)

On June 20, 1872, the notorious Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin and local (Willis) resident Duane Murchison are involved in a gun-fight in the streets of Willis. The shootout started according to Hardin when "some fellows tried to arrest me for carrying a pistol, but they got the contents therein instead". Hardin would go on to later have at least 27 murders to his name and would be killed in 1895 in an El Paso saloon, he is pictured here.

I appreciate the City of Willis Texas facebook page, where these great historic photos are shared.

Today's quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  Margaret Mead
I'm sharing this post with the world-wide site Sepia Saturday, though it has little connection to the meme of this week.


  1. Terrific history from a part of the country I don't know much about.

  2. So many of my ancestors were from Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and points east of Texas. But a few did move there, although none in Willis. Thanks for the history lesson on a town I never knew existed.

    Shakin' the Family Tree

  3. Interesting history of Willis, TX. A shame it couldn't bring you closer to your grandfather's early years, but - oh well. You learned quite a bit about Willis, anyway. :)

  4. Exploding cigars! I guess they didn't have a recall procedure in those days. What a business killer that would have been. So much interesting history in this town. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. What an unsavoury character Hardin was, but then outlaws generally were. A thought-provoking quote from Margaret Mead there,

  6. That John Wesley Hardin must have been one mean Texan!

  7. I love those old Sandborn Fire maps. Your comparison to it using the now ubiquitous Google maps was a nice touch!

  8. Texas history is fascinating in the way it bridges the old Spanish Mexican with the early American settlers and later immigrants. Lots of land allowed a lot of cultures and ambitions room to grow.

  9. This state has a lot of historical value. I read a book titled "Diamond Six" written by a grandson of Cpt Thomas Wesley Smith. I would encourage all who love history to find you a copy and read it. I promise you this, you will not be able to sit it down until you have read the last page! It's the true story of T. W. Smith and how he came to be in Montgomery County. Can you believe at 16 yrs old being asked to join the Texas Rangers? Your going to love this book!
    Well, that's just great, I have my book out and I am going to read it again! Personally, I think it would make a wonderful movie. I just love history and the determination of our elders who paved the way for all of us. Keep reading!!


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