History of Willis
Situated within the San Jacinto River Valley amongst vast forests, abundant creeks and fertile soil the area that would later be Willis has long been a nexus of community. When the first settlers arrived – many of them genteel plantation owners – in the 1830’s to cultivate cotton they found several peaceful Native American tribes who had for generations made use of the areas many natural blessings. The plantation and pioneer mode of living persisted until 1870 when the prosperous Willis brothers donated land for a town site along a new rail route connecting Houston to Chicago.
The burgeoning community of merchants and farmers – tomato and watermelon being the prime crops – grew rapidly and soon challenged nearby Montgomery for the county seat, the “paper war” that ensued eventually left budding Conroe the winner. Beginning in the 1880’s, owing to soil and climate, Willis emerged as the epicenter of tobacco growing in the state, and the resultant wealth spawned a private college, opera house and several fashionable estates. The eventual decline of tobacco culture in the early 20th century elevated timber as the main source of economic activity, however, Willis growth remained static for several years. After World War II with the creation of Lake Conroe, the building of Interstate 45 and a rapidly growing Houston, Willis again became an ideal community for new residents with its big city opportunities and small town charm.
Captain Smith Home – built in 1872 by Capt. Thomas W. Smith a former Confederate Cavalry officer, this home was typical of the type found in the town’s early history. Smith who settled the area before the towns founding was a catalyst in the tobacco industry and served as sheriff. The house was located where the Justice of the Peace Court now sits.
Willis in the latter part of the 19th century was home to seven cigar manufacturing operations and thousands of acres of crop surrounded the town. The soil and climate was well suited for Cuban varieties and Willis tobacco won several international awards. To help cultivate the tobacco, chain gangs from the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville were procured when necessary.
Willis in 1900 was a town bustling with railroad and agriculture enterprise, though dirt roads and horse and buggy transportation were still the norm. This view shows present day Bell Street, on the far right is the Willis Cigar Factory, the site of which is today marked by an historical marker.
Before the advent of the interstate highway system, Highway 75 was the main source of travel and commercial transportation between Houston and Dallas. Capitalizing on this, Charles Johnson built his service station alongside the route in 1923 for $17. The building later was used as an office for the Moran Gas Company and sits at the intersection of FM 1097 and Hwy. 75.