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The Willis brothers

by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA- One thing Huerfano County has to brag about is its plethora of interesting pioneers, and the Willis brothers were two of them.
Robert Burch Willis was born in Adams, New York in 1834 to Willet R. Willis, a wool merchant. Starting his career as a machinist, at age 19 R.B. commenced his westward journey, traveling to Illinois for a few months before continuing on to Iowa where he was employed as a messenger for the U.S. Express Company. From here he moved around Missouri and Kansas, now with the Adams Express Company, and established routes until 1858 when gold fever struck and he relocated to the “Montana” settlement near Denver. Having little success he went to Central City in 1859, then to Colorado City, now Colorado Springs, where he put down roots long enough to establish a mercantile business.
In 1861, when Colorado was organized as a territory, R.B. represented his town in the territorial council. He had befriended La Veta’s own Colonel John M. Francisco, also a member of the first legislature, and between them they lobbied for the territorial capital to be located in Colorado City, which it was.
About 1864 R.B. first visited Francisco at his plaza along the Cucharas River. Here he made the acquaintance of the Colonel’s sister, Mary Murray Francisco, who was visiting from the Kansas City, Missouri vicinity.
R.B. moved permanently to La Veta in 1866. The following year, on March 17, he married Murray Francisco, possibly in Pueblo or Colorado Springs, because it wasn’t in Huerfano County. Murray was born in 1829 so was five years older than R.B. They had two daughters but one died as an infant and was buried on the Willis ranch south of La Veta. The surviving daughter, Mary, known as Mamie, was born in 1869 and married Dr. A.W. Morton in 1894, also not in Huerfano County! The couple moved on to San Francisco, California at an early date, before 1900. They had at least one daughter, born in July 1900.
In 1871 R.B. bought a tract of land from Francisco and went into sheep raising. He must have known a thing or two about sheep because of his father’s occupation, and he spent the next 15 years as a sheep grower. In 1886 he sold out the sheep and turned to cattle raising. R.B. knew enough about sheep to move his herds to the eastern plains during the winter months, and possibly through shearing time. In 1880, for instance, he sent a flock of 1,000 to Kansas.
As an only child, Mamie may have been a bit pampered. In 1881 she received from her father a piano for Christmas – she would have been a mere 12 at the time.
1893 was not a good year for R.B. On January 10, Murray died of pneumonia. Less than two weeks later, his ranch house burned down. He threw in the towel and moved to California. He died there in July 1900. Mamie did not last much longer, dying in 1905. In his 66 years, R.B. had covered the country practically from one coast to the other, from New York to California.
Robert Burch and Mary Murray Francisco Willis are buried in the La Veta Cemetery. The family was not related to the later Harry Willis family of La Veta, but R.B.’s younger brother Willet Ranney Willis Jr. played an important part in the development of La Veta.
W.R. and his wife Frances moved to La Veta from New York with five children in 1872. In 1876, with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad building to Francisco Plaza, W.R. was involved with the La Veta Town Company to sell lots. When the town company went bankrupt, W.R. was named receiver. W.R. owned several houses in town, one of which burned down in 1899, on west Francisco Street, and had another in McComb Addition. He also owned what became known as the Galassini place on the road to Cuchara.
After arriving in town, W.R. and Frances had two more children. These siblings were Edward J., Frank G., Stanley J., Kate E., Rosa Belle (called Belle), Anna F., and Willet R. Several of the daughters became school teachers in town. All the children left the area, settling from Kansas west to California, but returned occasionally for family reunions and to check on childhood pals.
W.R. was elected county commissioner in 1894, and was chairman of the board. The family moved to Colorado Springs about 1901.
W.R. died in March 1902, within a month of his old compadres Colonel Francisco and Henry Daigre. His widow inherited the lots left unsold in the La Veta Town and Improvement Company, formed and enlarged by Willis and associates from the defunct La Veta Town Company. It is a rare and unusual real estate abstract that does not carry one of their names as the original sellers.