What began as a everyday love story nearly 140-years ago has since added untold numbers of chapters.
The book “Timnath: A History Presented by the Columbine Club of Timnath,” explains that in 1875 a bachelor named John Everett Willis came from Connecticut to Larimer County, where he worked as a ranch hand and also tried to raise sheep during his first year here. Sadly, his entire flock died.
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That settler’s descendants, Terry Willis and Nancy Greenwood, said family oral history embellishes the tale with a couple of more-romantic versions. One indicates that Willis had actually followed his beloved, Mary Luella Augusta Cobb, to Northern Colorado, where the young woman and her family had recently relocated from Connecticut. Another has Willis arriving first, then heading back east to marry Luella only to learn she and her family were somewhere along the trail heading to Colorado.
Regardless, when lovesick Willis finally caught up to the object of his affections, he was so determined to remain by her side that he homesteaded the 160-acre property just northeast of her parents’ land. Royal and Eliza Cobb eventually moved north to farm land about 1 1/2 miles east of where Budweiser now stands; Cobb Lake is named for them.
On Dec. 22, 1877, their daughter Luella wed John Willis on the Cobb farm. The union blessed them with seven children. But life was hard in the new, rugged territory. Only four of their offspring – Arthur, Howard, Dora and Edith – survived to adulthood. They shared the inherited homestead when their parents died (Luella in 1908, John in 1937).
After Howard married Josephine (Josie) Tarr, it appeared that a barren fate had nipped their branch of the family tree in the bud. However, the childless couple’s joy overflowed when, after 16 years of marriage, son Charles “Chuck” Arthur was born.
Chuck married Betty Adler on March 26, 1948. Their three children Terry, Randy and Nancy, grew up on the now 80-acre farm. They shared wonderful memories of childhood spent in rural bliss. They pointed to gigantic pines they’d designated many tree rings ago as bases for homegrown baseball games.
Betty recalled that a typical Depression-era 1930s land sale had cut the original 160-acre homestead in half. Besides inability to meet the tax burden on the entire property, irrigating all that land extending to what is now Prospect Road proved very difficult in those Dust Bowl days.
Quipped Betty, “Water doesn’t easily run north here!”
Chuck Willis died on July 7, 1997. However, he lived long enough to see his property receive the State of Colorado Centennial designation in 1976. To qualify for the award, a farm must remain in the same family for 100 years or longer. A sign now proudly hangs at Willis Farm declaring this uncommon feat.
Betty Willis, 84, shared many recollections of her life on the farm, as well as some historical facts previously known only to the family and friends.
The house in which she now resides was built in 1928 by Arthur (John’s son) Willis and wife Agnes. Agnes routinely used ditch water for her poultry. But one day when the flow was running high and fast, she fell in and drowned. Arthur’s brother Howard and his wife Josie then moved in with widower Arthur. Chuck and Betty took over the house when Howard and Josie built the white one next door in 1949.
The property’s original one-room cabin is long gone but the first actual house remains just across a small bridge from Betty’s home. The still-standing machine shed and barn are among the first outbuildings. Built in 1898 for $40 with timber Willis bought in the mountains and then milled at home, the barn is a well-weathered survivor.
School age children of bygone eras didn’t ride to school in parent-chauffeured, air-conditioned vehicles, or even on school buses while comfortably texting with friends or surfing the Internet. John and Luella’s kids braved all climate extremes riding horses to a school on the north side of Timnath town. Faithful mounts spent the school day grouped in paddocks where they awaited their young riders’ return for the trip home. Chuck attended Timnath Elementary which, in his youth, taught all grades through high school. (High schoolers moved to Fort Collins High in 1964).
Chuck farmed and maintained dairy cattle at Willis Farm beginning in 1949. Over 25 years, he built the herd up to 125 cows. But his talents extended beyond fields and fence lines.
In 1968, Timnath formed a volunteer fire department, of which Chuck was the original chief and served as such for many years. He was subsequently elected to the board of the Poudre Valley Fire Protection District that, according to Terry and Nancy, fired their existing chief in 1971 in order to replace him with their father. Chuck became Executive Chief of newly consolidated Poudre Fire Authority in 1980.
For many years, Chuck kept track of momentous and trivial facts/events on calendars he tacked up in the milk barn cabinet. These annual journals are now preserved in family archives and tell the stories. For example:
February 1, 1951: -41 degrees at 5 AM
1963: “dryer than hell!”
a ‘sheepish’ event on July 11, 1984: first set of twin girls, Harmony the father, no cigars
John Willis also kept diaries of the day, dating back to 1896. The family retains 11 years’ worth of these calendars that hung in the outhouse. Astoundingly, not a single page had ever been removed. Magazines, newspapers and calendars in outdoor loos typically did double duty as early toilet paper (and indoor plumbing wasn’t added to the original Willis house until circa 1960.)
Duane Fisher bought Chuck’s dairy herd in 1973. Son Randy took over farming Willis Farm in the 1980s and still maintains a flock of sheep. Although a substantial part of the acreage is currently leased out for plantings of oats and corn, Willis Farm still remains under family ownership with future generations lined up behind: Terry and wife Janelle’s son Jon, and Nancy and Herb Greenwood’s daughter Jennifer, son Kevin, and twin daughters Kristin and Sarah. Oh, and then there are the three Willis and 10 Greenwood grandchildren.
Perhaps someday Willis Farm will proudly sport a Bicentennial plaque beside its Centennial Farm designation. By then, many more chapters of Willis family history will have been recorded.