Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Rebel who Owned the Opera House, Chaired the School Board, and was Willamette Trustee

A while ago, yet not perhaps so long ago that it really belongs in any particularly distant past, a former Confederate Colonel moved to Salem. Arriving in 1871, Leo Willis worked his way from being an outsider to very much an insider. By the time he died in 1899 he was wholly an establishment figure. He had owned a large share of the Opera House, was Trustee at Willamette University, chaired School District 24, and chaired the Unitarian Building Committee as they built a new church.

This is both surprising and not surprising at all. Oregon voted for Lincoln and stayed in the Union. How could a traitor be so embraced?

But Lincoln got only 36% of the vote. We know about the Exclusion Laws in the Oregon Constitution, know about Asahel Bush's racism here in Salem, have a nearby county named after Territorial Governor and pro-slavery VP candidate Joseph Lane. On balance we should not be surprised. Oregon was a lot like a border state, and preferring more anodyne notions of heritage we have not always fully reckoned with the residue of embedded everyday racism and bias in our history.

More recently and nationally, though we sought specific technical knowledge from them, the retrieval and absorption of Nazi rocket scientists into NASA is another instance of a kind of reconciliation and rehabilitation for enemies with especially immoral ideologies. At these moments it's like we treat actual war in which people killed and were killed as a kind of kayfabe or other drama that doesn't require any commitment to future enmity. Let bygones be bygones.

Without more direct source material like letters and journals, it's hard to say what people themselves thought. There are great limits here at the moment. But from newspaper articles, it seems clear Salemites were not troubled by the past of Leo Willis. He knit himself into Salem society and politics, and his children became or married the next generation's leaders.

There is no evidence, in fact, that being a former Confederate was at all a problem. Salemites may not have wanted to ask too many questions so they did not have to grapple directly with a treasonous past. Some may have outright sympathized, or were fascinated by the past. Some did not see it as problematic at all, never seeing treason, just a strong disagreement. Still others may have seen Willis offering proximity to power in his brother-in-law, a US Senator from Alabama. Whatever the exact reasons, having been a committed Confederate officer and slave-owner was no barrier to participation in better Salem society. Even if people had private scruples, in public as they revealed preferences by their affiliations and actions, by what they did rather than what they might have thought, they showed they thought having been a Confederate officer was no impediment.

The story starts in Alabama. According to the Texas State Historical Association,
Leonidas ("Lee") M. Willis, businessman and Confederate officer, was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on September 11, 1831, to Joshua Willis and Martha Hall. Willis became an orphan at the age of two and was raised by foster parents who moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1847. In 1852 Willis relocated to Texas and settled in Gonzales County and worked as a district clerk for the county. He married Caroline Jane Mooney in Gonzales County on November 26, 1857. The couple had three sons and two daughters.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Willis, who owned five slaves, volunteered for service with the Confederacy and raised a cavalry company in the spring of 1862. This unit was incorporated in Waul's Texas Legion which was then forming at Brenham in Washington County. Willis himself joined Waul's Legion as major in command of one of the unit's two cavalry battalions and received a promotion to lieutenant colonel on September 26, 1862. In the autumn of 1862, Waul's Texas Legion was assigned to Arkansas and Louisiana. There, it was stripped of its cavalry and artillery components, and Willis's unit became Willis's Battalion Texas Cavalry.

Willis participated in numerous actions, including the battle of Vicksburg where he was captured on July 4, 1863. After receiving parole, Willis reorganized his battalion and served along the Mississippi River for most of the remainder of the war. He resigned as lieutenant colonel on February 4, 1865, three months before his unit surrendered in Alabama in May.

Following the end of the war, Willis returned briefly to Texas before moving to Salem, Oregon, in 1871.
In addition to being at Vicksburg, he appears to have participated in battle at Fort Pillow and a list of casualties contains members of his cavalry unit.

It is interesting this history does not mention that the cavalry unit was part of General Forrest's army, a fact which at the end of his life seemed preeminent and worth inscribing on his cemetery monument (an image of which at this particular moment didn't seem necessary to include here).

We pick up the story in Salem of the 1870s. Without letters, journals, or interviews, newspaper ads and articles are going to do most of the work here, and aside from a few comments, mainly I will present them in narrative order. This is scrapbook as blog post, I'm afraid. Some time it may be possible to add to this or to rewrite it wholly with an actual narrative, greater interpretive nuance, and any corrections. For the moment, then, it is a work-in-progress. But it tells a clear story.

The 1870s in Salem as Merchant - Hardware, then Stationery

Between 1871 and 1875 I have no information on his activity in Salem. Apparently he worked for RM Wade.

RM Wade a little later, circa 1890,
on northeast corner of Commercial & Court
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
Wade had built his hardware store in 1869 on the northeast corner of Court and Commercial. You can see a wider view of the corner during the 4th of July parade in 1892. Now on the site has the moderne block with the curving corner, the Pearce building of 1940.

In 1875 he struck out on his own with a storefront in the Patton Block on the south side of State Street across the alley from Tap Root and into which Ladd & Bush ultimately expanded.

Formerly with RM Wade
Willis announces purchase of business
(April 2nd, 1875)

Announcement and ad after buying out
Walter Jackson's business
(April 16th, 1875)
In addition to advertising in Salem papers, he also placed ads in the Willamette University student newspaper, the Collegian. 1875 was its first issue apparently, and he took advantage of the timing. In September of 1875 he advertised "school books, fancy goods, pianos, organs, and other musical instruments" in "Patton's block" on State Street.

The 1880s - WU Trustee, School Board Chair, Entrepreneur

In the decade of the 1880s, he'd established himself enough here to be elected to the Board of Trustees at Willamette University, to chair the School Board for District 24, and to own part of the Reed Opera House for about a decade. He was also something of an entrepreneur and started up other projects, though it's hard to say how many resulted in actual businesses. There's entrepreneurial churn also.

Incorporating for a canal from Mehama,
with Cyrus Reed (March 3, 1882)
Elected for a second term in 1885
(first term in 1883, another in 1890)
to Willamette University Board of Trustees
(June 1, 1885)
Chair of the School Board (February 21, 1889)

Willis & Chamberlain (March 21st, 1889)

Ownership of the Reed in 1880s
with Reed, Chamberlain,
and McCornack
(December 29th, 1922)
The part-ownership of the Reed and Willis' relationship with Cyrus Reed is a little interesting. In a history piece at the Mill, they cite a 1924 article:
Reed’s leadership of the Republican-led militia [as Adjutant General during the Civil War] in Oregon did not make him very popular with the Southern sympathizing Knights of the Golden Circle, who in addition to discouraging enlistees and drilling in “the manual of arms,” plotted Reed’s assassination.
This appears to be a very specific example of former enemies reconciling at some level and working together in partnership. Reed worked with Willis not just on the Opera House project, but also that Canal project. There may have been others. Willis seems more than merely instrumentally useful to Reed.

The 1890s - Business Churn and Difficulties

In the 1890s he saw the marriages of his children, two of which are remarkable here. Son Percy married Ida Purvine, and the AJ Purvine house is still on Spring Valley Road and AJ Purvine buried in Zena Cemetery.

Daughter Leona married Edgar B. Piper, who became Editor of The Oregonian. (See below for more on Percy, Leona, and Edgar.)

About sons Horace and Eugene and daughter Carrie, there is less to say. They don't disappear, but they seem to have had more ordinary lives. Maybe something will turn up on them.

Two weddings:
Percy Willis to Ida Purvine
(October 16th, 1890)
Leona Willis to Edgar B. Piper
(June 18th, 1891)
Probably related to the Panic of 1893 and subsequent depression, the 1890s also brought business struggle to Leo.

He'd purchased in 1890, and this is the last ad
January 17th, 1891
But even before the crash, some of his land speculation looked like it didn't pan out. A large investment in the former Rector DLC did not result in new orchards and the State ultimately owned the bulk of it.

There's no sign of the subdivision or orchards
(1929 Metzker Map)

Going out of business (June 16th, 1894)

Maybe not closed,
but still strugging -
"stress of the times"
(April 16th, 1896)
Fraternal Organizations and Politics

Somehow he also got involved with the Grand Army of the Republic in Salem. Is this possible for a former Confederate? (This will require more research. Gideon Stolz apparently wrote a history, perhaps around 1935, of the Sedgewick Post in Salem. A copy is in Portland, and after the Pandemic it may be possible to consult it.)

Member of Grand Army of the Republic?
(December 5th, 1888)
In addition to the possible membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, he chaired the Unitarian building committee, and after being active in Democratic Party politics here, appears to have flipped to support Republicans in the 1896 Presidential election and 1898 Governor's race. At church, he is "Colonel Willis," that part of his past is not hidden, and he not at all peripheral.

The new church is still standing and is an office
across Chemeketa Street from the Ike Box
(January 4th, 1892)
In September of 1896 Willis was elected "by unanimous vote" an honorary member of the Union Veterans Patriotic League of McKinley Republicans of Marion County. In November after the election he was featured with Governor Lord at a meeting for McKinley and the Party. Across the nation "Bourbon Democrats" had defected from William Jennings Bryan to support McKinley, so perhaps this is not so surprising.

Governor Lord and "old Democrat" Willis
supporting McKinley
(November 16th, 1896)
Illness and Death

He died in 1899 on April 10th after an illness. The morning obituary is very clear on his wartime activity:
When the civil war broke out in 1861, his sympathies naturally being with the South, Mr. Willis enlisted in the service of the Confederacy...He was colonel of a battalion of cavalry and under command of General Forrest...
At the burial, the Unitarian minister spoke of his "high character."

April 13th, 1899
The Family

Brother-in-Law, Senator Morgan, married to sister Cornelia

Going to meet Leona's Uncle
August 2nd, 1898
Willis' brother-in-law, John Tyler Morgan, US Senator from 1877-1907 (and died in office), is something. He had married sister Cornelia Willis in 1846. From the Encyclopedia of Alabama:
As one of the most outspoken white supremacists of the early Jim Crow era, he vigorously championed the racist policies of black disfranchisement and racial segregation. Morgan advocated the removal of the black population of the South to foreign shores, and thus combined his support of imperialism and racism into a "southern nationalist" philosophy that called for an aggressive, militaristic, and paternalistic approach toward non-white peoples of the world....In 1846, he married Cornelia Willis, of the prominent Hardie family of Alabama, with whom he had one son....The defeat of the Confederacy left Morgan extremely bitter toward the federal government, the Republican Party, the North in general, and the formerly enslaved. Like so many other southerners during and after Reconstruction, he was never able to forgive those he perceived as enemies of his region's way of life. Indeed, he epitomized what might be described as the "unreconstructed" ex-Confederate.
Son, Percy Willis

His son Percy attained a career in the regular United States Army with service in the Spanish-American War and World War I. He built the Willis-Stiff building that currently houses the Book Bin, and funded the Colonel Willis Prize for "doing good" at Willamette University.

Oregonian, July 8th, 1901

Current home of Book Bin
October 24th, 1916

Oregon Daily Journal, July 2nd, 1920

Established Col. Willis Prize at Willamette
WU Collegian, September 29th, 1921

An early 2000s piece republished in 2015 on Percy Willis

Son-in-Law, Edgar P. Piper and Daughter Leona

Edgar B. Piper - Library of Congress
In 1910 Piper succeeded Abigail Scott Duniway's brother, Harvey Scott, as Editor of The Oregonian. His death merited a short notice in the New York Times.

Leona was talented at least by Salem standards and often appeared in concert to sing. She may have attended the New England Conservatory of Music, even. She also acted, and in a notice of "The Planter's Wife" was predicted to be "Salem's pet of the footlights."

Leona Willis as a "Southern coquette"
(April 17, 1890)
Wrestling with the Legacy

In Virginia, Governor Northam just announced the big statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond will come down.

As I read it, there is no smoking gun in Willis' history here, no monument or building inappropriately named, no homage that now should be undone. Except perhaps for the misguided "honor" of a flag at the grave of a traitor for Memorial Day (and even that is still personal, private devotion though it is a kind of sign in a public place), he is not venerated publicly in any official way, and there is certainly no large-scale public honor like a statue or other civic moment. In public memory here, the name Willis is associated with son Percy, and Percy was not a traitor and does not need to answer directly for the sins of his father, even if he probably also did not repudiate them. Without further evidence there is no scrubbing or knocking off a pedestal, metaphorical or literal, that should be considered.

Nor is there anything really very shocking here.

But it might give us a little bit of pause to consider how friendly, even cozy, everybody seemed to be with the family of a Confederate officer who was at Fort Pillow and whose brother-in-law was an architect of Jim Crow as US Senator. They did not need to hide their past, and Salemites did not seem to feel any need to keep a distance. Salemites welcomed them, perhaps even with open arms.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Mill may also have a copy of Stolz' memoirs of the GAR Sedgewick Post no. 10.

Anonymous said...

A draft position paper from the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries:

"the OCHC recommends that Confederate flags not be allowed to be flown in historic cemeteries during Memorial Day weekend celebrations, or at any other time....If families have a Confederate soldier’s grave they wish to be decorated during Memorial Day, they should choose to use the United States flag or flowers, rather than a Confederate flag. Memorial Day weekend celebrations should only utilize the flag of the United States of America...."

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

That is interesting! Thanks for sharing.