Several faded photographs, three sunbonnets, and a list of items sold at auction.
My sister and I did not know much more about our great great grandmother. Taking a clue from the writing on the back of the photo of Great Great Grandma and her chickens, my sister and her husband took a detour on their vacation trip from the west coast. Near the borders of Nebraska and Missouri, they followed a stretch of scenic highway across the Great Plains of northern Kansas to Willis, Kansas where Great Great Grandma Maggie had a farm over a hundred years ago.
In 1883 William G. Cutler published his History of the State of Kansas one year after Willis began as a station on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He had high hopes when he wrote, “It is already a thriving young town with a number of enterprising citizens, who do a good deal of business. It has two handsome churches, several stores and a number of fine residences, and bids fair to soon become one of the important towns of Brown County.”
Willis never grew much after the turn of the century. Today it is barely a dot on the map with only 38 residents. A few houses of different eras stand on quiet streets. Some sport neatly kept lawns and colorful flowers, porch swings and the American flag. Others lie in disrepair. An orchard of fruit trees has seen better days.
Raised letters over the doorway of a handsome one story brick building reads Public School Willis 1912. Where students once entered double doors, windows are boarded and it stands derelict in a field of tall prairie grass. A large section of roof on the once sturdy high school has collapsed into the second floor. With no reason for upkeep, worn and rickety buildings seem destined for the woodpile.
Even with patches of peeling paint, a two story Victorian retains its stately beauty, reminding us of a more vibrant time when the town served a community of small farmers. The friendly proprietors of Teeter Totter Antiques (which you’d miss simply passing through) are proud to share the history of Willis.
It once boasted three grain elevators. The first business was a furniture store and in 1884 there were two churches, 3 drug stores, 4 groceries, 3 dry goods, a lumber yard, meat market, bakery, hotel, blacksmith, barber, shoe shop, a shooting gallery, hotel and more. A few years later it had its own newspaper. The town was laid out with streets and sturdy two story buildings like Trompeters Block which sold hardware, farm implements, drugs, dry goods and groceries.
Willis represents hundreds of Kansas ghost towns, once vital farming communities, spread across the entire heartland of America. Today they are but links to the past, like revered museum pieces. Willis is part of my history and that’s how my sister and I discovered it.
We never knew my Irish American Great Great Grandmother Maggie. If she was anything like her daughter, my great grandmother who I do remember, she was slim but feisty and strong in mind and body. She was born in 1856 and married an Irish American blacksmith when she was only fifteen. After 22 years and three children, her husband died, leaving her to raise the children. Nine years later she married a slightly younger man, a widower with three children, the youngest only three years old. They were married over thirty years until his death.
The following is a partial list of items sold at auction on Dec 8, 1919 as shown in the photo of their farm. The full account includes the buyer. To me it is more than a list; it tells us about life in the early 1900’s.
old buggy $25
new buggy $75
riding cultivator $31
Preserves- 30 cans of cherries @ 29c each, 8 cans of tomatoes 10c each
sewing machine $25
2 mules @ $70 each
1 brown mare $18
a bay horse $28
jersey cow $142
black and white cow $100
1 red heifer $50.50
1 black and white heifer $30.50
1 bull calf $25
1 heifer calf $17
5 pigs $20 each
1 boar $15
All their dishes, chairs, tables, cooking and washing utensils, hay, harnesses, collars bridles, lanterns, double trees were listed.
Total income minus fees was $1203.54
Typical of farm families, they tended a large garden with vegetables. Maggie canned fruit and made preserves from their orchard. She might have taken some of the tomatoes and corn to the local cannery. They had milk and cream from their dairy cattle. Chickens supplied meat and eggs. James hunted rabbits with his friends. They raised pigs and kept horses and mules for pulling the plow, harrow and cultivator on land where they grew wheat, corn and sorghum. Maggie made clothing from flour and feed sacks and old clothes. They learned how to get by with very little money.
In 1920 they sold the farm and most of their possessions and moved to Southern California with the little they could carry. They might have traveled by train from Kansas City or perhaps with the money from the farm they bought a Ford (if by then the price had been lowered to $260 leaving enough for gas and a house when they got to their destination).
Finding Willis helps me understand how my ancestors lived and the community they called home. The past cannot be regained but we can learn from it. Memories are keepsakes, only of value to the one who holds them–unless they are shared. The “little town that was” begs to be remembered. Find it on Facebook at Willis, Kansas Memories.
Great Great Grandma’s Sunbonnets
In the photo of Maggie feeding her chickens on the farm, taken in 1909, she is wearing one of her handmade sunbonnets. Back then folks knew nothing about sunscreen and sunglasses but they were aware of the effects of the sun’s harsh rays on their face and neck in summer. Maggie did not leave her sunbonnets in Kansas when she came to sunny California. Our mother found them in her belongings when she passed away in 1938.
Sunbonnets come in many different styles. The blue gingham bonnet shows wear but has held up well for over 100 years. It has cloth ties, a large brim, a flounce at the back and sides and narrow pockets inside for placing cardboard as stiffening.
My favorite is the more colorful one which has a smaller brim, no flounce and buttons instead of ties. Our mother used Maggie’s bonnets as patterns to fashion new ones to sell at church fundraisers.
Did you ever wear a sunbonnet? Do you have a sunbonnet story?
More about Willis
For such a small town, it has made the news more than a few times.
1887 fire took out the Trompeter building and six others. Lots of buildings were destroyed by fire in the following years.
1912 train wreck and fire burned down the depot.
1938 Alf Landon, Ex Governor of Kansas and presidential candidate was speaker at the 4th of July celebration with 1500 people present to hear his address.
In 1946 the middle grain elevator had the top knocked off when it was hit by a Navy plane, resulting in the death of the pilot.
In June 2014 high wind amid powerful storms derailed 52 cars of a 134-car coal train which had stopped because of a tornado warning.