Arthur Willis, of Ottawa, Kan., founder of the well known Willis Nurseries, is a native of Wisconsin, having been born on a farm about three miles from Lake Geneva, Walworth county, March 18, 1843. He is descended from sturdy English ancestors on the paternal side. The first representatives of the family in the United States came from Canada to Livingston county, New York. William Willis, the grandfather of Arthur, was reared in Livingston county, New York, and resided there until 1843, when he removed to a farm in Rock county, Wisconsin, near the Walworth county line, and resided there until his death in 1845. His son, Lewis H. Willis, born near Dansville, Livingston county, New York, in 1817, when twenty-three years of age, or in 1840, made a trip to Walworth county, Wisconsin, and bought eighty acres of land there. He then returned east, and in 1842 married, in Pennsylvania, Mary Bowers, and soon afterward returned to his farm in Wisconsin. He made improvements and added to the estate until he had a fine farm of 220 acres. He lived there over half a century, or until his death in 1896. He was a Baptist in church faith and membership. His wife, a native of New York, though reared in Pennsylvania, died in 1871. She was the mother of five sons and two daughters, of whom all but one son reached maturity and of whom three sons yet survive.
Arthur Willis was the eldest of these children. He was reared on the farm and received his education in the country schools of his locality and the schools at Delavan. He remained at the parental home until twenty years of age when he left his early friends and associates, and in 1864, went to Rockford, Ill., where he gained his first experience in the nursery business as an employee of J. S. Sherman, a nurseryman of that city. In 1866 he went to Missouri where he remained until the spring of 1871, when he located at Ottawa, Kan. At that time the leading nursery there was the Ottawa University nursery, established by S. T. Kelsey about 1866. The first step Mr. Willis made was to plant 200,000 apple grafts and other fruit stock, which was done under a contract. In the spring of 1873 he planted considerable nursery stock which he sold two and three years later. In 1876 he leased from the trustees of Ottawa University the University Nursery, in control of which he remained until 1882, in which year he established his present nursery, which consists of 200 acres of closely planted nursery stock. His office and sale grounds are at the east end of Fifth street on Cherry street in Ottawa, where also is located his residence, his packing houses and other buildings. Mr. Willis has made horticulture his exclusive vocation and by over forty years of experience and close observation he has gained an extensive knowledge on the subject. He has served as vice-president for Kansas of the American Association of Nurserymen, and as president of the Western Nurserymen's Association.
Mr. Willis has closely entered into the life of his community, not only in a business way but also through identification with its educational, social and religious life. In 1885 he was chosen as a trustee of Ottawa University and since 1890 has been secretary of its board of trustees and a member of its executive committee. He has contributed both of his time and means toward the advancement of the University. From early manhood he has been a member of the Baptist church. At the time the present First Baptist Church edifice of Ottawa was built, Mr. Willis served as a member of the building committee. For a number of years he has been a member of its board of trustees and a deacon of the church, being now senior deacon. He is an active Sunday school worker. In political views he is a Republican and has served two terms in the city council as the representative of the Second ward, three years of which time he was president of the council. He is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, nurserymen in the state, and a pioneer citizen of Ottawa, who has materially contributed to the growth and development of the city.
Mr. Willis was married in 1872 at Ottawa to Miss Amelia Esterly, a native of Ohio. They are the parents of four children: Ola, a graduate of Ottawa University; Blanche, also a graduate of Ottawa University and now the wife of G. W. Beach of British Columbia; Arthur E. and Fern (deceased). Arthur E. Willis is also a graduate of Ottawa University. On July 1, 1909, he and his sister, Ola, were admitted to partnership in the Willis Nursery Company, and have since then had principal charge of the business.Pages 1401-1403 from volume III, part 2 of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed December 2002 by Carolyn Ward. This volume is identified at the Kansas State Historical Society as microfilm LM195. It is a two-part volume 3.
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