Prior to 1875, there was no Methodist Church building in Willis, but a Methodist group was meeting in a school in the mid 1870’s, known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
On October 17, 1877, the Texas Land Company conveyed to the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South two lots in the town of Willis, Texas, for the sole purpose to be used as a site for a church building. The building of the Methodist Church began that October, 1877, and records show the Sanctuary was completed in 1879.
On May 19, 1966, the First Methodist Church was named as a recorded Texas Historic Landmark by the Texas State Historical Survey Committee and a historical marker was placed on the outside front wall of the Church depicting the historical facts concerning one of the oldest churches in Montgomery County, Texas.
On April 23, 1989, the Church received a plaque designating it as No. 157 by the General United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. Fifty-eight ministers have served the Willis Church in the past 127 years.
The First United Methodist Church in Willis has grown steadily through the last 127 years--from the small group of Methodists in 1877, worshipping in the one small building housing the Sanctuary-- to approximately 250 who presently meet each Sunday in the Family Life Center. The Church Complex today consists of the historic Sanctuary, with its original Chancel Rail and pews held together with wooden pegs; a two-story Education Building which houses the Church office, Pastor’s study, and Sunday School classrooms; a Fellowship Hall; a Parsonage for the Pastor and family; and the most recent addition, the Family Life Center which opened in October 2002.
Time Line of Willis First U.M.C.
Provided by Sue Ann Powell
Background Information: 1861—1865 Civil War or War Between the States
1861—Danville was a former campsite of some of the Confederate army of this area and a once thriving community. Trustees for the Methodist Episcopal Church South, in March, bought 1/2 acre of land for a church site in the town of Danville. Prior to moving to Willis, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was located in the town of Danville. Danville came into being long before Willis and was deserted after the Civil War. After the railroad was located to the east of Danville, in what became the town of Willis, Danville was doomed to extinction.
1869—Peter J. Willis, a wealthy merchant from Galveston, owned the land where the town is located. He deeded the land to the railroad for a town site, and a railroad began construction from Houston but did not reach Willis until 1870.
1870—Houston and Great Northern Railroad began laying a track from Houston to Chicago.
1872—Trains began traveling through and Willis prospered; first Post Office was founded in the city. Lumber industry provided jobs for many people and the railroad provided the means for transporting their yields. Four trains came through Willis every day, two going north and two going south. People would line up all along the street in front of where the feed store is now to see the trains.
1877—The Methodist group in Danville decided to make a move to Willis. In January 1877, the trustees sold the church house and all the property for $80, and made the move to Willis where they met in a school house until construction of a new church began in October, 1877. In a deed dated October 17, 1877, the Texas Land Company conveyed two lots in the town of Willis to the Trustees of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, of Willis, on the condition the property be used as a site for a church building. The present Church building was erected by builder, Sidney Inglet, between 1877 and 1879.
1878—Before the Church as completely built, Willis was the largest stave lumber and shingle manufacturer in the southwest and also had a farm implement and wagon manufacturing company. There were two cotton gins, a broom factory, grist mills, a brickyard, a glass factory, two sawmills, a number of grocery and dry good stores, a couple of hotels, an opera house, a drug store, and the First and Last Chance Saloon. Willis was the center of the Texas tobacco leaf growing with an estimated 90% of all Texas tobacco having been grown within five miles of town. The year the Willis Church building was being constructed, 1878, was also the year of the 38th annual session of the Texas Conference which was organized in 1840.
1879—The August 30th Texas Christian Advocate headline: “New Church at Willis Not Quite Ready for Dedication”. Nothing was owed on the building when it was completed. The Reverend Pugh advertised for donations of seats, lamps, a Bible and hymn book for the completion of the new Church. The pews and chancel rail now in the Church are the original ones and were made by Mr. E. A. Anderson, a cabinet and furniture maker. Captain T. W. Smith, a local merchant, donated the bell for the steeple. The pulpit was made in the penitentiary at Huntsville. At one time there was a white picket fence around the Church to keep the cows and other animals out.
1885—The Willis Male and Female College, serving all grades and the College, began operation . Rev. S. N. Barker, pastor of the Willis Methodist Church, and his wife became the first administrators of the Male and Female College. A practice at one time of the Male and Female College was for the janitor of the main building to ring the bell, which was in a cupola atop the building, at a certain hour each weekday evening. The ringing of the college bell was the signal for all boarding students and those in the homes and out-in-town boarding houses to retire to the study hall of the college, or to their respective study tables for supervised study of two or three hours. The property was sold to the citizens of Willis in 1901, for the public school. It is now the site of the Willis ISD Administrative offices.
1888—The August 30th minutes of the Women’s Missionary Society boasted 21 members and a Juvenile Missionary Society with 50 members. By the late 1880’s the cigar industry played a vital role in Willis’ history. A tariff made Cuban tobacco too expensive to import. Willis farmers planted tobacco seeds imported from Cuba and cultivated their crops on lands cleared by the lumber companies.
1890—Willis boasted seven cigar rolling factories, providing jobs for over 100 people. Population of 832 according to the U.S. Census.
1892—In the Conference Journal of 1892, it stated that this Church was the largest Station Church in the Huntsville District; its membership being 196. This Church at that time was the second highest paying church in preacher’s salary, paying $800 a year. Entire budget for the year 1892 was listed as $1,400.92.
1893—Willis-grown tobacco won first place at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Opera house was constructed.
1896—Land was purchased from Mr. and Mrs. T. J. Paddock and a small parsonage was built next to the Church on the South side.
1900—Willis-grown tobacco won first place at the World’s Exposition in Paris, France.
1902—At the end of Spanish American War, the tariff was lifted and the cigar industry quickly died. Willis returned to its lumber-oriented roots and employment opportunities. Cotton, tomatoes and watermelon eventually became the leading cash crops.
1929—The Great Depression. Willis suffered long lasting hardships.
1932—George Strake struck oil in the area and Willis began to grow again and was incorporated in 1937.
1939—The parsonage was replaced, and a four-room church school educational building was annexed to the main auditorium. The Carillon, which plays at noon and 6 p.m. each day, was given to the Church by Mrs. Margaret Sykes and T. W. Crawford in memory of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. S. A. Crawford.
Late 1940’s—Stained glass windows were installed.
1952—Church was remodeled and the original inside walls were covered with a composition board.
1954—Parsonage was moved to property on Martin Luther King, and the Fellowship Hall (Youth Building) was constructed.
1964—The pews were stripped of the many coats of paint and refinished in the natural wood, showing the beautiful work of the pegged-together construction of the pews.
1966—In May, this Church was dedicated as a Texas Historical Landmark by the Texas Historical Survey Committee and the marker was placed on the Church in three parts: a plaque, a medallion, and a small plate, all combining to give the historical facts concerning one of the oldest churches in Montgomery County.
1968—The word “United” was added to all the Methodist churches and so today, this Church is known as the First United Methodist Church of Willis.
1969—The parsonage was sold and a brick parsonage was constructed on the site on Martin Luther King.
1970—Red carpet was placed over the double plank floors.
1981—The Education Building was erected in 1981, with the second story being completed in 1988.
1985—The Church was designated as a United Methodist Historic Site, No. 157, by the General United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. To be so designated, the site must have been occupied by one or more Methodist Church structures and used as a duly constituted church body for at least 100 consecutive years. At the time of this designation, 162 Methodist churches met this requirement and only 23 of these were in Texas.
2001—A ground-breaking ceremony was held for the construction of a Family Life Center on property donated by Sam S. and Dorothy Paddock Scott and Archie and Laura Belle Paddock. The completed facility was dedicated on October 27, 2002.
2012—Two of the rooms in the back of the Sanctuary were remodeled for a Bride’s Room.
2013—A Prayer Garden was constructed between the Historical Sanctuary and the Youth Building.