WILLIS, George W. Ocala, Williston
Many years ago, I bought a small oil on board painting on eBay. On the back was written in pencil, “Everglades, painted by Dr. Willis of Ocala.” In my research through early Florida directories, I found Webbs, Ocala City Directory for 1893 listing George Willis as the only artist in the city. 19th Century Florida paintings by little known early Florida artists are rare. A charming oil on board, the naïve work depicts the Everglades with pine trees, palms, an oak draped with Spanish Moss, birds in flight, waterlilies, two deer, a gator in the foreground, and a small snake. In the distance sit two men in a boat. But it was only recently, and now retired, that I decided to dig further.
The Ocala Banner, December 7, 1894, indicates that a Dr. George Willis was receiving attention from, “the ladies who have given him the most considerate attention during his enforced confinement from his broken limb.” On May 19, 1897, the Ocala Evening Banner notes that Dr. George Willis, the pineapple grower of this city will leave for Orlando…where he has purchased five acres of land and will embark in the pineapple culture on a large scale. The Florida Agriculturist, (DeLand, Florida) August 25, 1906, carried a column by Dr. Willis on pineapple growing.
With a last name of Willis, and Ocala only 25 miles from Williston, I went to the Williston, Florida website and found that Williston had been founded sometime before 1885 by J. M. Willis, who named the city for himself. The Ocala Banner, March 3, 1911 tells us about a Jesse M. Willis. “In 1853 this community was a vast forest, unnamed and untrammeled by the march of civilization and the axe of industry. In that year Hon. Jesse M. Willis, who was tax collector and assessor of Marion County, moved from Ocala to the present site of this town. He spent the remaining twenty-eight years of his life here, maintain a large plantation, about two-thirds of which was situated within the present corporate limits. He arrived here with a force of about thirty faithful slaves and immediately began a development which, although it has been slow, has not ceased from the Fall of 1853 to the Spring of 1911. ….” It was here in Williston that George Willis was raised along with his two older brothers, Paul and Frank Willis.
In the summer of 1908, the Ocala Evening Star received a letter from the Rev. L. D. Geiger of Apopka, secretary of the Florida State Baptist Convention and close friend of George Willis, notifying the paper of Willis’ death. The letter, published in the Star on August 13, 1908: “George W. Willis was born at Flemington, Fla. January 1, 1814. His father and mother both died when he was but nine years old. They left two other sons, Frank, and Paul, both younger…and one daughter, Mrs. O. E. Edwards, who died in 1899. Paul Willis, who entered the ministry about the same time as myself, and who for a time was my schoolmate and always my friend, was one of the most devout young men I ever knew. He died in 1892. (As President of the Florida Baptist Convention.) These three brothers were raised to manhood in the home of their uncle, Jesse Willis, at Williston, one of the best and most respected men of the entire country, and their sturdiness of character is doubtless due largely to the many wholesome lessons taught them by their uncle and his noble wife, Aunt Dolly. George Willis was married to Mary E. Reddick, at Williston, December 1868 at which place they both lived until they died. The wife passing away February 20, 1907. Ten children were born to them.” Well, that’s George W. Willis, orphaned at the age of 9, Willis became an expert in pineapple culture, an artist, and the father of 10 children. It was an honor to tell you about him. Born: January 1, 1844, Flemington, Florida. Died: August 1908, Williston, Florida. Directory: Listed in the 1893 Webbs, Ocala City Directory as an artist.