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Wild Man Willis Ray Willey

• CATEGORIES: Features, Old Images

UPDATE: Thanks to Mike for sorting out Willis’ real name. He was Willis Ray Willey, while his twin was Willard Roy Willey.

It might not surprise you that my interest in history has led me to become the family historian.  As a part of my self-assumed title, I make it a point to look through the family albums and scan images whenever I’m visiting.  This morning while looking through my grandmother’s album, which contains images from Fighting Creek, Idaho, the place her parents homesteaded in 1911 (they actually won a land lottery), I stumbled upon the unusual photograph of a man in an early motorcar that I show below.  I called mom over and asked her if she recognized anyone in the photo, as I didn’t.  She said she didn’t either.

About mid-day I was talking to my aunt (mom’s sister) and briefly described the photo.  I described the guy as ‘wild looking’.  Well, my aunt said that there was once this guy with the name of Wild Willy or something that used to be a colorful character around the Spokane area.  I got curious about who this guy might be and why the unusually nice photo, for a photo taken in 1933, ended up in a family photo album.

So, I powered up Google’s image search feature and input a variety of search strings until I spotted a picture of a guy who looked like the guy sitting in the car.  The story accompanying the photo said his name was Willis Ray Willey and, while he didn’t have a jeep,  he had quite the unusual, adventurous story.  So, I thought I’d share a brief summary of it.

To read more about Willey, visit this article from Nostalgia Magazine. Willey reminds me of the Camel Man, who Hein ran into a few months ago in Australia.

In the picture above, we appear to have Willis Ray Willey in his 1904 REO, the first year that the Ranson E. Olds Automobile Company built a car.  This photo was taken in 1933 (note the ’33 on the license plate).  The photo is taken with the Monroe Street bridge and the Spokane Falls in the background.  Willey planned to drive this car from Spokane to the 1933/1934 World Fair in Chicago.

You’ll note that Willey is only wearing shorts.  It turns out that Willey was a sickly youngster.  After examining him, a doctor suggested that he improve his constitution by exposing himself to the elements.  So, over time, he reduced the clothes he wore, eventually only wearing shorts whether winter or summer.

Apparently, that did the trick, as he never got sick, at least not until he was on his trip to the Chicago World’s Fair.  See, it turned out that simply wearing shorts wasn’t very common practice and, in fact, wasn’t tolerated.  People complained when they saw him and police would arrest him, with many arrests occurring on his way to Chicago.  According to Nostalgia Magazine, he did make it to Chicago, where he was arrested again. However, this time they cut off his hair and beard and he promptly got sick and remained sick for 3 months.

Now in the photo above, you’ll note that along the side of the seat it reads “Postcards 3 for 25 cents”.  One of the ways Willey made money was by selling postcards of himself; I guess he recognized just how much of an oddity he was.

If you look below, you can see two of the postcards he sold.  One is of him on Treasure Island in San Francisco, with a dog, a coyote, a turtle and multiple possums (click on photo and scroll down to see closeups).  The other is of him ice skating at LIberty Lake (thanks Jerry).

Yes, quite the character indeed!

 

35 Comments on “Wild Man Willis Ray Willey

  1. deilers

    That’s a good question. I have no idea what the family link is. I’ll have to forward a link to my great aunt (grandma’s sister) to see if she might know. Otherwise, I suspect it will remain a family mystery.

    I love the pic though 🙂

  2. Keith Leroy Willey

    .Living in Willis’ birth place of Mt Ayr, Iowa in the ’80s I met four or five people who met Willie and they had good storys. My Grandfather Clair Orr Willey and Jim Smith took Willie hunting in the dead of winter just to freeze him out. They are the only ones who got cold, not Willie. Love the new pictures I have never seen. Thanks Keith Willey

  3. mmdeilers Post author

    Keith,

    That’s a great story! Thanks for sharing it. If you’d like a reproduction of that top photo, let me know and I will get have one made and will mail it to you. If I remember correctly it is a 4×6 photo. Just email me at d@ewillys.com with your address.

    – Dave

  4. Buz

    ‘According to Nostalgia Magazine, he did make it to Chicago, where he was arrested again. However, this time they cut off his hair and beard and he promptly got sick and remained sick for 3 months.”

    That’s another good reason I’ll use to not have to visit Chicago again.

  5. Kim Willey Weehler

    If anyone is interested this is also a book about Willis Willey…….The Life of Willie Willey by Keith L. Yates. It was published in hard back first but still can be purchased in paper back today. His twin brother Willard was my grandfather. Kim Willey Weehler

  6. Mike Avitt

    Willard Roy Willey’s obituary in the December 19, 1935 issue of the Mount Ayr (Iowa) Record-News says Willard’s middle name was Roy. Therefore, Willie was Willis Ray Willey. The twins were born in Mount Ayr, Iowa on September 15, 1884 to John and Martha (Thomas) Willey.

  7. Terry L Donoho

    I remember a character in the Hillyard area of Spokane called Willy Willey when I was a kid in the 50s. I was young enough that I don’t remember what he looked like, just that it was provocative. I do remember that I was on a tour of a B52, and he was in the tour group!

  8. Jerry Numbers

    The picture of Willis is on Liberty Lake in Spokane County taken in 1930 by Lawrence Numbers, Nu Art Studio who also did many different post cards for him to sell.

  9. George Moon

    Hi, Willy Wiley used to come to my Grandfather’s bakery on the near northside of Spokane (Moon’s Bakery” and sit by the brick baking stove, near the woodpile, in the winter. Grandpa Luther Moon also used to give him some rolls or whatever was baking, but would not let him into the bakery itself. My dad who was about eight thru 15 himself and grandpa both related this story to me. I inherited some of the old bread wrapper. The bakery closed down over some union issues and grandpa started a truck farm in the Spokane Valley about 1939-40.

  10. David Eilers

    Thanks George. With all these great stories bubbling up on this thread, it’s easy to see that Willis was a thoroughly original, very memorable person.

  11. John Sullivan

    Does anyone know where the 40 acres he owned and what’s on it now? I was born way after all this. But old stories like this intrigues me.

  12. John Sullivan

    40 acres in spokane that is. I read an article saying he had to sell in auction because of a lawsuit from his nephew and another saying that he lost it due to property tax. 40 acres for $140

  13. David Eilers

    John,

    My great aunt *might* know. She’s in her early 90s. Her family homesteaded (won a land lottery circa 1912) and farmed at Fighting Creek, then started the Fighting Creek store around 1925 (now the Fightin’ Creek store on Elder and US95). She wrote to me:

    “I don’t remember much about him other than he was a character unlike anyone else. If I remember right he wore shorts all year long. He seemed to turn up at various community celebrations.”

  14. Sullivan John

    David,

    It would be cool to know. I read it was east of Hillyard, but there is a lot of land east of Hillyard. Can’t find any property information before 1960. I think it was on spokane historical that I read it was sold in auction to a Francis Carver. But I can’t find any clarification on that either as far as land records.

  15. David Eilers

    John,

    Perhaps it was land he inherited? As I understand it, he never had much money, so it’s not clear how he could have purchased that much land?

  16. Blaine

    I heard a story about 15 years (or more?) ago about a guy like this that only wore shorts to keep from getting sick. It said also that he was a sickly child. It might have been on some TV show as it was before I was doing the internet. It’s not likely that I read it in a book but I won’t rule that out. It must have been about this guy. It was said that on a trip somewhere, people complained about the lack of clothes and as a result he was arrested and he was made to wear more clothes. And promptly got sick.

  17. Don Baiar

    Willy was a friend of mine. As a boy, my friends and I hung around Willey a lot. He often parked his rig just accross the Spokane river from our Spokane valley neighborhoood. The area was accessible over a large water pipe foot bridge over the river and we spent many hours playing with his animals and stocking up on his wild tales and homespun wisdom. He always dressed in shorts and went barefoot in the summer. I will never forget him.

  18. Lee Hirschel

    My dad who passed in 2003 at 82 told me stories about Willie. I do not remember specifics other than as mentioned he wore only shorts year round. There is a large Boulder in the Spokane River that is named in his honor with a plaque, just north of the Howard St bridge and to the East.

  19. David Eilers

    Hi Stacey,

    Willis certainly seemed like an interesting guy. He certainly touched people’s lives all over the Spokane region. I’ve got family in the area and everyone seems to know the name.

    – Dave

  20. Stacey Bough

    He got the land from what my mom could remember is either someone owed him money and gave the land to him or he paid the taxes on it. When he was in jail he wasn’t able to pay the taxes on it and some guy paid them and took the land from him. Also his brother disowned him, as he didn’t approve of his life style, also Willis never did like to ware clothes.

  21. Rebecca McCreary

    This was an interesting read. We have a story in our family about my Grandmother’s uncle, I believe. She called him Willy Willey. She said he lived in Washington state and was a naturalist and the first North American nudist. I wonder if it is the same person? Her maiden name was Lottie Willey.

  22. Stacey Bough

    Rebevca,,
    I talked to my Mom and what she remembers is she had a Great-Aunt Lottie. She was only about 2 years old. So, she don’t remember much. I know Willis was my Great-Grest Uncle my grandpas Uncle. My grandparents are Harold (Rabbit) and Erma Willey. If that helps you out.
    Stacey

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