JEFF WILLIS. There is much of the flavor of real pioneer times about the personality and career of Jeff Willis of Stevens County, whose present address is Hugoton and who is living within seven miles of where he located in 1887, more than thirty years ago. Life has brought him many experiences, and through them all he has preserved an attitude of determination and courage that enabled him to stand his ground when most of his fellows were leaving, and thus he has well earned his share of the prosperity that has come to Western Kansas within the last decade.
Mr. Willis was born in Harrison County, Missouri, November 11, 1860, and Northern Missouri was his home most of the time until he came to Kansas. He has an interesting ancestry. His great-grandfather was the son of an English nobleman. He was a high spirited youth and one day became engaged in physical combat with the son of another nobleman and proved the righteousness of his contentions so well that one of the blows he struck broke his opponent's jaw, and after the smoke of combat had cleared away his fellow fighter was so severely injured that young Willis determined it was best for his personal safety and popularity to leave England altogether. Thus it was that he came to America and founded the Willis family here. His son, John Willis, was born in Pennsylvania, and during the War of 1812 served as an American soldier. He is buried in Harrison County, Missouri, and among his nine children the eighth in order of birth was Peter L. Willis. Peter L. Willis was born in Tennessee, and as a youth joined the adventuresome band of pilgrims who crossed the plains to California in the days of '49. He was a gold digger on the coast, lost his health there, and after returning from the west settled in Harrison County, Missouri. He died there in June, 1888. The maiden name of his wife was Harriet Seymour. Her father, Isaac Seymour, was a native of Pennsylvania, lived in Tennessee and later in Mercer County, Missouri. Mrs. Peter L. Willis died April 27, 1873. Her children were: Jeff; John, of Harrison County, Missouri; Margaret, of Lafayette County, Missouri, wife of John McClure; Peter Lowery, of Washington state; Lottie, wife of John Cline of Stevens County, Kansas; Ervin, of Harrison County; and Harriet, wife of William Williams, of Stevens County, Kansas.
Mr. Jeff Willis as he grew up on his father's farm attended the common schools. Since early boyhood his experience has been one of uninterrupted connection with the soil and with farm work of some kind. When he came to Kansas in 1887 he had as a companion Ralph Tucker. Both were land seekers, but Tucker finally returned to Missouri, and had no special part in the development of Stevens County. Mr. Willis settled in what was then Niagara Township, preempting in section 9, township 35, range 18. That quarter section he deeded by commuting. He was a factor in the development of that locality for more than a quarter of a century, and left there only after his second marriage, when he moved to the Voorhees school district. At one time he was the farthest western settler in that township.
Reverting to his early experiences, Mr. Willis came to Western Kansas driving his own team from Harrison County. His cash capital amounted to about $40. For his first shelter he put up a 16-ounce duck tent, 10 by 16 feet, and lived in it throughout the winter. That winter he employed his time in breaking sod for others at $1 an acre. In the summer of 1887 he put in a crop and had a fair yield of sod corn. The year 1888 also returned a generous yield of corn, forty bushels to the acre, but in 1889 there was nearly a total failure of corn and oats and the four following years equally barren of results despite all his labor and care. In the meantime he had secured the deed to his preemption, and had mortgaged it, using the proceeds of the mortgage to build a more permanent house, a dugout 14 by 24 feet. In order to secure the money to live he worked tree claims, preparing and planting tree seed for $1 an acre. That was his most reliable source of income for several years, his team being too light for freighting. The first cow he owned was acquired by trading a Hemington shotgun to James Catron. Catron now lives near Oregon, Missouri.
In those rather trying times Mr. Willis proved a man of resources, otherwise he could hardly have remained in the country. The resource that enabled him to gain a stake and become a permanent resident was the drilling of wells. Buying a well machine and paying for it on the installment plan, he operated it and others for a period of eighteen years. During that time he developed water over a territory covering about 100 miles in extent. In these modern times it is difficult to appreciate what a well meant thirty or forty years ago. One incident in Mr. Willis' experience will serve as a valuable illustration. When he settled on this frontier there was only one well in Hugoton. That was the nearest well to his claim, and for several years he hauled his drinking water from it, a distance of sixteen miles, a supply of water thus requiring an entire day's journey. It should he mentioned that one of the city wells in Liberal was drilled by Mr. Willis. In pay for the well drilling he took not only currency, which was scarce, but also calves, colts, horses and other stock. Thus he accumulated the nucleus which brought him into business as a stock man.
It has been noted that he mortgaged his first claim, and he finally let the mortgage company have the land. Later he paid the new owner $1,600 for the tract. After using up several outfits at drilling wells, he operated a threshing machine for several years, and this also brought some profit. In the meantime he was developing his interests as a ranchman, and his extensive holdings at one time amounted to the area of an entire congressional township, six miles square, all of the land in it being under his title except a single quarter section. The land was all fenced and about 300 acres was cultivated. As a stockman Mr. Willis developed chiefly the Hereford strain from the Sunny Slope farm in Lyon County. He was content to breed and raise the cattle and market through local buyers and shippers. After more than twenty years of this work he sold his herd in 1910 and retired from the industry. He has also sold most of his land, much of it before the big rise in land values. For six quarter sections he received only $2,000. Another incident that serves to identify Mr. Willis with pioneer times involves a well known and historic tragedy of pioneer days. When much of the country was overrun by bandits, who made private individuals as well as public officials unsafe, Mr. Willis was member of a party of haymakers at Wild Horse Spring when Sheriff Cross and his party were destroyed by outlaws. Though not an actual witness to the tragedy Mr. Willis personally knew the men on both sides.
Mr. Willis has also had a modest part in politics and in shaping those affairs which gradually gave form to community life in Stevens County. He assisted in organizing school district No. 9 and helped build the schoolhouse. He also assessed the township in 1889 and in 1891. On the whole he has been true to the democratic allegiance and faith, though he supported Colonel Roosevelt as candidate for president. He has given liberally of his means toward building and supporting churches and other worthy causes. He is not a member of any church, but his wife is a Methodist.
In Stevens County, in March, 1888, soon after coming here, Mr. Willis married Mrs. Sarah E. Tetterrow. Her maiden name was Willis, and by her first marriage she had three children: Mrs. Annie Hamilton, of Stevens County; Mrs. Nellie Cain, of Cainsville, Missouri; and William B. Tetterrow, a farmer and postmaster of old Niagara postoffice, who married Jean Ellis. Mrs. Willis deserves remembrance as one of the pioneers of Stevens County. She proved up the homestead quarter section in section 9 which is still owned by Mr. Willis. She came here from Illinois and died August 23, 1906. Mr. and Mrs. Willis had two sons, Lawrence and Howard, both farmers in Voorhees Township. Lawrence married Winnie Borden and their children are Alma, Myra, Annie and Leonard.
On November 12, 1913, at Hugoton, Mr. Willis married for his present wife Miss Annis Cline. Mrs. Willis was born in Greene County, Indiana, August 24, 1867, and two years after her birth her parents moved to Harrison County, Missouri, and she grew up near Cainsville in that county. Her parents were David and Eliza (Yoho) Cline. Her grandfather, Peter Cline, was a native of Pennsylvania and of Dutch ancestry. He married Mary Dennis in Pennsylvania and they reared four sons, David, George, Michael and William. Of these sons David, father of Mrs. Willis, was born in Noble County, Ohio, May 12, 1835. From that county he enlisted for service in the Civil war in Company G of the One Hundred and Eighty-Sixth Infantry, and was out about nine months, being assigned to duty as a teamster. He had spent many years as a teamster between his home town and Baltimore, Maryland, in the days before railroads, and was thus well equipped for the duties assigned him in the army. Since the war he has been a farmer and is now living retired at his old claim in Stevens County, where he located late in life. The Cline family came to Kansas in 1902, and David Cline and his two daughters all took up government land in Voorhees Township. Mrs. Willis and her father still reside on that land.
David Cline's wife was a daughter of James Yoho. She was born in Noble County, Ohio, in January, 1835, and died in Harrison County, Missouri, July 6, 1882. Her children were: James Cline, of Beaver County, Oklahoma; Peter, of Anitone, Washington; Mrs. Willis; John, of Stevens County, Kansas; Isabel, who married Lester Thompson, of Harrison County, Missouri, and died there; Mary, wife of Andrew Stetna, of Irving, Kansas.
Mrs. Willis was only fifteen years of age when her mother died, and she became the mother to her younger brothers and sisters and did a splendid part by them until they reached maturity. In early womanhood she turned her natural abilities to good account as a nurse, and her work attained the dignity of a profession in Iowa and Missouri and also in Kansas. Every fall but one since she came to Stevens County she has helped gather a crop, and is not only a practical nurse but a practical farmer. When these notes were compiled she was quietly and efficiently performing duties that have brought notoriety to many less useful women and was not only administering the Willis home from kitchen to parlor, but was driving a lifter in the fields. As all this would indicate Mrs. Willis is a highly intelligent and thinking citizen of Kansas. For eight years she has been a director of School District No. 40 and since given the franchise has taken a keen interest in politics. Her first presidential vote was cast for Woodrow Wilson, while Mr. Willis gave his maiden vote to Grover Cleveland for president many years ago.
Transcribed from A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written and compiled by William E. Connelley, Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. [Revised ed.] Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1919, c1918. 5 v. (xlviii, 2530 p.,  leaves of plates): ill., maps (some fold.), ports.; 27 cm.
Tom & Carolyn Ward
Home Page for Kansas
Search all of Blue Skyways
The KSGenWeb Project