Thursday, March 27, 2014

#88 The Willis House (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Willis House in Greenwood, Florida
The 9-bedroom Willis House in Greenwood is #88 on my list of "100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida."

Please click here to see the full list as it is unveiled.

Surrounded by beautiful live oaks, this much beloved home faces Fort Road in Greenwood. While many mistake it for an antebellum home, the house was completed by Dr. and Mrs. R.A. Willis in 1917 and will be 100 years old in three years.

Mrs. R.A. "Ma Lizzy Willis and her home
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
One of the largest homes built in Jackson County during the early 20th century, the Willis House has nine bedrooms. Each has its own lavatory and fireplace. Tradition holds that Mrs. Willis insisted that the house be so large because she wanted her children and grandchildren to always live under her roof.

The house was surrounded by numerous other structures, including a smokehouse, chicken coop, barns, servants' quarters and more. One unique feature was its ice house, where blocks of ice were stored. Although Dr. John Gorrie had invented artificial refrigeration more than 70 years before the Willis House was built, it took time for it to become commonplace in Florida. The earliest "refrigerators" were iceboxes in which perishables were preserved using cool air from actual blocks of ice. The ice house provided a cool place where the blocks could be stored to provide a steady source of ice for the house's icebox.

The Willis House in Greenwood
A prominent physician, businessman and politician, Dr. Willis was serving in the state senate when the house was completed. The following year, like other doctors in the area, he did his best to save patients during the terrible Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. The outbreak claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States and millions worldwide. It is said that the house often doubled as a hospital for seriously ill patients.

In 1923, while serving as health inspector for Florida's prisons, he spoke up about the treatment of sick and injured inmates:

Dr. R.A. Willis of Greenwood, Fla., who is elected by the board of commissioners of state institutions to visit convict camps and inspect them as to sanitary arrangement and the physical condition of the men has told me repeatedly that he had visited camps and ordered men to be sent here [i.e. Raiford] for hospital treatment and on his next visit, about thirty days later, would find these same men still at the road camp. - J.S. Blitch, Superintendent of State Prison Farm at Raiford, May 3, 1923.

The willingness of men like Dr. Willis to speak up gradually led to improvement in conditions for those held in state institutions across Florida.

The Willis House today is framed by majestic oaks and giant azaleas. As of this writing, it is for sale.

1 comment:

Anne Hudson said...

As one of her great grandchildren, we all spent many happy times there on special of cowboy and indians in the back among those outbuildings...sleep overs on the big screened porch upstairs, picking scuppernongs under the massive vines in the rear (right side), swinging in the big swings on both ends of the lower porch..I have one of them now in SC. Many hours spent exploring all those bedrooms upstairs ...I still have dreams, very pleasant ones, about wandering through those rooms ...and enjoying all the good food cooked I that large kitchen...especially turnip greens and coconut cake!

Anne Willis Hudson