A stroll through Willis shows remnants of the town’s rich history, which boasted at one time a college, opera house and vast cigarettes online fields that supported seven cigar factories.

While there are only six Texas historical markers throughout the city, Willis’ historical past has much more under the surface for those who are willing to search.

When the city of Willis was founded in 1870, Thomas Chapel United Methodist Church already had its root in town. Thomas Chapel was organized in 1867 and is the oldest congregation in town.

“The church was there before the city of Willis was founded,” said Nancy Jackson, the church’s secretary and certified lay speaker/leader. “ … It has been destroyed several times, but the congregation always regrouped and rebuilt it.” She called the congregation a “membership family.”

“That’s why it means so much to me because it’s the church my family went to. It’s the church I was raised in,” Jackson said. “The present membership is related in some way. It’s part of our family history.”

Worship services took place in log and frame buildings and brush arbors before the building currently that stands at 512 W. Martin Luther King Blvd. at the intersection of Holland Street, was constructed in 1899. The fellowship hall was added in 1954.

While repairs have been made to the building over the years, the church’s bell tower was reconstructed in 2004. Work that is left to do is restoration on the north corner to the south corner of the east side of the building, which will be completed as funds are raised. Other restoration work includes restoring windows, Jackson said.

Just a few blocks east, at Waverly and Thomason streets, Willis Methodist Church was erected between 1877-79. While most churches have moved closer to I-45, longtime church member and member of the Willis Historical Society, Sue Ann Powell, said “It’ll be over my dead body when they move it.”

However, that hasn’t been the case with other historical buildings in town.

“So many of our landmarks are gone,” Powell said.

There is nothing left of the Willis Cigar Factory. The site where the factory stood is home to a brick historical marker about the factory. Tobacco grown in the area was of the highest quality and won international awards in Chicago and Paris, according to the marker. At its heights, Willis was home to eight cigar operations. However, the industry faded when a tariff on Cuban cheap cigarettes was lifted.

The Willis Male and Female College, located at Rogers and Thomason streets, was founded in 1888 when coeducation was rare. Willis citizens raised funds for the two-and-a-half-story building, which is now a parking lot. Taxes funded three of the six months of school, while monthly tuition for the rest of the year ranged from $1,50 (first grade) to $4. The site was sold in 1901 to the city for public school purposes.

The college’s bell still stands on the property. It was rung to inform students when it was time to study.

“You could hear it all over town,” Powell said.

The city of Willis was named for P.J. and R.S. Willis, large land and timber owners who formerly were merchants in the area. The town was established along the Houston and Great Northern Railroad, which brought prosperity to the town. In 1874, Willis was competing against Montgomery for the county seat. Conroe eventually won.

The Texas Historical Commission approves historical markers once a year, said Sarah McClesky, historian for the commission’s marker program. The submitted location must be at least 50 years old and have historical significance and/or be architecturally significant.

To date, there are about 15,000 historical markers across Texas, McClesky said, with nearly 275 applications submitted annually.

“People can learn a lot about people who live in that area before them,” McClesky said about why people should visit the historical markers. “If you didn’t stop at that marker, you might not know it even existed.”

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