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Town of Willis Montgomery County Texas


Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the page for more history and genealogy of the people and places in Willis Texas.


Map of Town of Willis 1874


WILLIS, TEXAS. Willis, a lumbering and agricultural market town, is on the Missouri Pacific Railroad eight miles north of Conroe in north central Montgomery County. In 1870, as the Houston and Great Northern Railroad began surveying Montgomery County's first rail line, Galveston merchants Peter J. and Richard S. Willis, landholders in Montgomery County, donated a townsite to the railroad along the proposed route. By that time a number of black farmers in the vicinity had already organized a Methodist congregation, which became the first church in the community of Willis. By 1872 the rail line had been extended through the town, and most of the businesses and residents of Danville, Montgomery, and Old Waverly had begun moving to the new town. That same year, a post office was established and a white Baptist congregation was organized. In 1874 citizens of the burgeoning new community launched a prolonged but unsuccessful struggle to transfer the county seat from rival Montgomery to Willis. A weekly newspaper, the Willis Observer, began publication as early as 1875. By the late 1870s Willis had become a prosperous shipping point for timber and agricultural commodities and a center for the manufacture of lumber products, wagons, and agricultural implements. In 1879 the town's first white Methodist church was constructed. In the early 1880s a three-story building was erected to house the Willis Male and Female College which, until its demise in 1901, functioned as a semi-private boarding school for students in elementary grades through college.

By 1884, in addition to its various schools and churches, Willis boasted several steam-powered saw and grist mills, two cotton gins, a brickyard, a saloon and gambling house, a Grange hall, numerous grocery and dry-goods stores, and a population of 600. In 1888 the town's first Church of Christ was constructed. By 1890 population had climbed to 700, and three hotels and a second weekly newspaper, the Willis Index, were in operation. During the late nineteenth century the Willis area became the leading tobacco growing region in the state; before the lifting of the tariff on Cuban tobacco killed the boom in the early twentieth century, Willis supported as many as seven cigar factories. As tobacco culture declined, a boom in the production of timber and agricultural products kept the town's economy thriving. Although population fell somewhat to an estimated 500 in 1892, by 1904 it had leaped to an estimated 832 and continued to climb slowly for the next two decades. The Willis State Bank was established in 1911. In 1913 there were 271 pupils enrolled in the Willis Independent School District. By 1914 yet another weekly newspaper, the Willis Star, had appeared, and a telephone exchange was in operation.

The town's growth came to a temporary halt, however, with the onset of the Great Depression and the resulting slump in local timber production. From an estimated 900 in 1929, population fell to an estimated 750 by 1931. But an oil boom in central Montgomery County that began southeast of Conroe in 1931 soon spread its effects to the Willis area, bringing renewed economic activity and an influx of population. Further stimulus was provided by the completion of U.S. Highway 75 through the town in the early 1930s. Then, during World War II, the lumber industry and agricultural activity revived. By 1933 the town's population had climbed again to an estimated 900, but it remained at this level for more than three decades, standing at an estimated 891 in 1968. The extension of Interstate Highway 45 through Willis in the early 1960s helped integrate the community into a regional economy and provided a corridor through which both industrial and suburban development could penetrate the area. Finally, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Willis's growth resumed as construction of Lake Conroe began five miles to the west on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. Population jumped to an estimated 1,457 in 1970, then increased slowly for a decade and a half before another growth spurt began in the 1980s. The Willis area was at last benefiting from the spillover effects of the postwar booms of Houston and Conroe, but the economy remained based on lumbering and agriculture. By 1981 1,850 students were enrolled at the four campuses of the Willis Independent School District. From an estimated 1,674 in 1986, Willis's population climbed to an estimated 2,110 in 1990, and by 1992 the figure had grown to an estimated 2764.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Choir Invisible: An Early History of Montgomery County (Montgomery, Texas: Montgomery Historical Society). Robin Navarro Montgomery, The History of Montgomery County (Austin: Jenkins, 1975). Montgomery County Genealogical Society, Montgomery County History (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Hunter, 1981).

Charles Christopher Jackson


Excerpts from “A History of Montgomery County, Texas” Chapter V, Cities, Towns, and Communities,
by William Harley Gandy”: For Sources, see Endnotes:

Willis came into being as one of the towns of Montgomery County in 1870. It was named Willis by the Houston and Great Northern Railroad, the predecessor of the International and Great Northern. The town was called Willis in honor of the Willis brothers, Peter J. and Richard S. , who had been citizens of Montgomery and were at that time owners of the P. J. Willis and Brothers firm in Galveston. The Willis brothers had rather large land holdings and timber interests near the townsite; therefore, they deeded to the Houston and Great Northern Railroad a place for a townsite along the railroad.40


Construction for Montgomery County's first railroad was completed in 1872. When the trains began to move on the new railroad, Willis began to prosper. Most of the business houses from Danville and many residents moved to the new town near the railroad. Others from Montgomery and Old Waverly also located in the new town.41


By 1873 the population of the town had grown so much that an agitation to move the county seat to Willis was begun; then on September 7, 1874 a called election was held and Willis by a majority of one hundred and forty-two votes was chosen as the county seat.42


In 1875 the Willis Observer, a newspaper in the town, gave an account of the town's merchants and the newly organized Grange. The article explained as follows:


... The merchants of this place have good stocks on hand, and are selling more goods than we thought could be sold these hard times. They sell principally for the cash –though some little "trusting business."

The "Grangers" are doing very well here, and are increasing in number every meeting. They have opened in this place a Grange store, upon a small scale, which is destined to become of great benefit to the farmers; we are told that its effect is being felt already. The Store is under the management of Col. Israel Worsham kept in the building occupied by F. J. Williams…43

In the same paper an advertisement gave the tuition rates for the newly organized Willis Male and Female College. The advertisement stated that Willis was instituted for males and females and that the exercises for the institution were resumed August 1, 1875 and that they would continue for ten months. Tuition rates were two dollars and five dollars a month; a student taking music was charged five dollars extra. The expense of the student, including board, need not exceed one hundred seventy-five dollars for the entire season.44


The Willis Male and Female College plant consisted of three buildings, the main building, dining room and kitchen, and one other building. The third floor of the main building was used for laboratories and rooms for boarding students, and at one time housed the dining room and kitchen. At one time there were about two hundred fifty students who boarded in the college and in several houses located on the street to the west of the grounds and in nearby homes or boarding houses. The curriculum of the college provided for the study of ancient languages, history, mathematics, literature, science, vocal and instrumental music, art, and physical culture. The administrators of the college were Reverend S. N. Barker and wife, George W. Stovall, F. P. Crowe, J. A. Kooken, John W. Hoke, M. A. Kline, and Cyril M. Jansky.45


A practice at one time of the college was that at a certain hour each week day evening the janitor of the main building would ring a bell which was in a cupola atop the building. The ringing of the college bell was the signal for all boarding students to retire to the study hall of the college for supervised study of two or three hours and those in the homes and the out-in-town boarding houses were supposed to go to their respective study tables and study for a like period of time. 46


By 1886 Willis had the requisite number of inhabitants to incorporate as a town. Upon a petition of forty-nine resident citizens asking for an election to be held to incorporate the town, the County Judge declared an election to be held in the town of Willis at the Market House of R. B. Roach on March 16, 1886. The election was held and by a majority vote of fourteen, the citizens voted against incorporation.47


Willis continued to grow rapidly, because in the 1890 census it had almost as many people as its rival town, Montgomery –832 and 921 respectively. 48


In the 1890's Willis had a building boom. Many new stores and residents were constructed. Some of the places of business there at the time were T. W. Smith's General Merchandise, Carson and McKibbin General Store, Sandel's Store, Powell and Walker's Drug, Leslie's Brick Yard, First and Last Chance Saloon, and Pearl Saloon. An opera house was constructed by T. W. Smith in 1893. The local newspaper wrote the following about its construction:


Through the courtesy of its owner, Capt. T. W. Smith, an Index representative, was shown through the neat and attractive public hall and Thespian temple, which he has recently had fitted up in the second story of the Caldwell building, at the end of Stewart street. The interior is handsomely painted and comfortably seated with benches of an improved pattern, thereby insuring the unstinted praise of all who may patronize it. The stage is of modern design, and a handsome drop curtain and scenic appurtenances of a suitable character will soon arrive and be put in place. The room on the south side of the building answers most admirably as a dressing boudoir, without encroaching upon the space of the main hall, and an additional seating capacity is the result. Some kind of an entertainment will probably be given upon its completion, in order that the citizens of Willis may be formally introduced to what they have long sadly missed–a pleasant and an attractive public hall.49


Willis attracted much attention around 1895 because of the tobacco industry started there. In the latter 1890's Willis had developed this industry so well that it became a very much advertised little town. Fine grades of tobacco were grown in the vicinity and T. W. Smith and son, Gwen Smith, encouraged the industry by building a large brick cigar factory and employed more than one hundred men and women to roll the tobacco into cigars. At its peak Willis boasted of seven cigar factories. A large number of big tobacco buyers from the various eastern points would come to Willis each season to buy their tobacco. They claimed that the Willis tobacco had a flavor that could not be found elsewhere. The farmers grew the celebrated "Vuelta Abago" variety of Cuban tobacco and they sent to Cuba each year for fresh seed.50


The tobacco industry was very successful at Willis until the United States Congress lifted the tariff on Cuban tobacco, which had a very devastating effect on the industry at Willis, due to the fact that Cuba, with cheaper labor, could raise tobacco more cheaply than Willis.


Owen Smith, owner of one of the cigar factories, told a local citizen that the reason the cigar factories closed was because the Cuban employees who worked them wanted to forma union. The union activities were squelched by the employers and thus making the Cubans angry they rolled up gun powder and asafetida in the next shipment of cigars. When the reports came in from the buyers the tobacco industry ceased to exist in Willis.51

After the tobacco industry faded away the lumber industry appeared in Willis to keep it alive. Today, it has several sawmills and planers that employs much of its population and is the main source of its wealth. It is a quite respectable little village with about nine hundred people who go about their daily tasks while they think of the days when someone styled their town as the "Athens of Montgomery County."52


From a Traveler's Guide to Historic Montgomery County
1836-1986, Texas Sesquicentennial Edition


The township of Willis was founded in 1870. Peter J. and Richard S. Willis donated the land to the Houston and Great Northern Railroad. The Willis Brothers were large land and timber owners who were former merchants in the area.


With the railroad came prosperity, in a few short years Willis became one of the leading towns in the county. It boasted a college, an opera house, numerous stores, hotels, and a cotton and tobacco industry. In 1874 Willis and Montgomery vied for the county seat. Both towns eventually lost to Conroe.


By 1875 Willis had vast tobacco fields supporting seven cigar factories. Some of the finest grades of tobacco known in the world were grown here. Tobacco grown near Willis received first prize at the Colombian World's Exposition at Chicago in 1893 and at Paris, France in 1900. Types of tobacco grown in Willis included the celebrated Sumatra and the world famous varieties from Abajo District of Cuba. This industry faded when tariff laws on Cuban tobaccos were lifted.


Through the 1960s and 1970s Willis was mainly an agricultural area. The main industry was timber and livestock. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Willis began to see a trend toward manufacturing and high technology. Since Willis is surrounded by Lake Conroe there has been a noticeable growth in population.

Willis home of Oldest African American Church
in Montgomery County



Willis History from Town of Willis Texas



Willis Texas TimeLine From Town of Willis Texas




| Home | Top | Morgan Dollar | Anna Willes Williams |
| Willis Centennial 1870-1980 | Willis 125 Years |
| Willis Centennial Brings Memories to Mrs. Scott |
| Willis Brothers Letters |


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