Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Willis, Sr.

1884 – 1930

 

c1911 photo of Cleve Willis, Sr. and his son, Clarence Willis, in one of Cleve’s early race cars that he had named “Blue Bird”

 

 

 

 

     Cleve Willis’ son, Virgil, was watching a playmate in a foot race when he was just seven years old. The playmate didn’t run very fast and, in turning a corner, he fell. Virgil laughed derisively and called out, “You little Ford!”

 

Cleve Willis, Sr.

 

Cleve Willis was born November 21, 1884 at Rogersville, Tennessee, the only child born to John Wilson Willis (1850-1927) and his second wife, Mariah Elizabeth “Bettie” (Barrett) Willis (1863-1900).  Cleve’s parents divorced when he was five years old.  His father was married four times in all and Cleve had nine half-brothers and sisters.

Willis was known as “Guy Willis” until he moved to Kansas in his late teens, where he soon became known by his new nickname, “Cleve Willis.”

Willis moved to Hiawatha, Kansas just after 1900 and he was married there first in 1903 to a local girl, Gladys Amelia Sherman (1884-1965).  They became the parents of Audrey Ruth (Willis) Sewell (1903-1978), Clarence A. Willis (1905-1993) and Virgil Willis (1907-1987).

By 1910, Willis was working as a machinist and salesman at the Sterns & Son Studebaker garage in Hiawatha.  The following year, he was put in charge of that business and he soon became a very enthusiast car salesman; a trait that he would be known for the remainder of his life.

Following is an incomplete list of automobile races that Willis is known to have competed in:

 

October 18, 1911 – ½ mile dirt oval – Brown County Fairgrounds at Hiawatha, Kansas

Cars:  A Studebaker owned by Sterns & Son Studebaker garage in Hiawatha in the 1st slow race and an unidentified automobile owned by Jack Wolfley of Hiawatha, Kansas in the 2nd slow race[Note:  A “slow” race was a novelty race to see which competitor could cover the prescribed distance last without stopping, killing the engine, or going back in any manner in the direction of the starting line.]

Finish:  1st in the 1st “slow” race.

                   1st in the 2nd “slow” race.

 

The following year, Willis and two partners opened the Northeast Kansas Motor Company in Highland, Kansas and Willis was selected to be the sales manager for the new Abbott-Detroit and Overland automobile agency.

 

September 26, 1912 – ½ mile dirt oval – Brown County Fairgrounds at Hiawatha, Kansas

Car:  Abbott-Detroit owned by the Northeast Kansas Motor Company of Highland, Kansas

Finish:  Willis’ riding “mechanican” was A. C. Campbell and they won the 5-mile race over Gale Beckwith in a yellow Buick who was another driver from Hiawatha.  The judges admitted that they got so excited that they forgot to time the race but thought it was run in the 6½ minute range.  The victory was worth $100 from the purse for Willis.  Although there were several entries in these races, only three automobiles competed after several others withdrew having witnessed a serious crash and rollover by Otis Spigler of Falls City, Nebraska in his Fal-Car during the warmup laps.  Spigler was uninjured while his riding “mechanican,” Milt Zoeller, only suffered a sprained foot.  [Note:  One newspaper reported that Spigler’s car rolled three times, tossing Spigler high into the air, while another newspaper reported that the car only “tipped over.”]

 

Left to Right:  Ruth, Clarence, Virgil & their father, Cleve Willis, Sr. c1916

 

September 28, 1912 – ½ mile dirt oval – Seneca Fairgrounds at Seneca, Kansas

Car:  Abbott-Detroit owned by the Northeast Kansas Motor Company of Highland, Kansas

Finish:  Willis was standing beside the car tuning it up before the races when the flywheel “broke” striking him in the leg.  His leg was fractured in two places below the knee.  Two other men were also struck by flying debris but neither of them was injured.  For the first week, doctors told Willis that his leg was so badly mangled that it would have to be amputated, however, after further observation, they decided not to amputate.

 

While Willis was recovering from his broken leg, he was able to get around on crutches, although he carried the injured limb in a sling.  He also spent quite a bit of his time at home singing, playing his mandolin and working on ideas for inventions he hoped to have patented someday.  It was two months after the accident before he could even drive his personal automobile though.

Willis and his partners opened a second location of the Northeast Kansas Motor Company in Hiawatha in 1913.  Willis had become known around Hiawatha as “The Automobile Man” by that time.  He designed and built a new Fal-Car race car that summer that he also named “Blue Bird.”  Of course, the car was painted bright blue.  The underslung race car started out as a stock 5-passenger Fal-Car with a 40-h.p. engine and it only weighed 1,900 pounds.

 

September 17, 1913 – ½ mile dirt oval – Norfolk Fairgrounds at Norfolk, Nebraska

Car:  Cleve Willis’ own Fal-Car “Blue Bird” race car

Finish:  Results of these races have yet to be located.

 

September 27, 1913 – ½ mile dirt oval – Brown County Fairgrounds at Hiawatha, Kansas

Car:  Cleve Willis’ own Fal-Car “Blue Bird” race car

Finish:  Willis withdrew from the five-mile “hurtle race” for an, as yet, undetermined reason.  This race was won by W. W. Brown of Kansas City, Missouri in a Buick Model 10 who won $50.  He was followed by Glenn Breed of Emporia, Kansas in his Buick Model 17 who received $25 and E. V. Bailey of Parnell, Missouri in his Buick #21 who won $10.  [Note:  According to an article on page 1 of the June 6, 1961 issue of the “Hiawatha Daily World” written by Ted Oliver, who had grown up at Hiawatha and was residing in Tracey, California in 1961; other drivers in this race realized that Cleve Willis had a fast car and, not wanting him to win any of “their” prize money, they maneuvered him into a pocket on the south straightaway and then crowded him into the infield, a move that convinced him that he should probably withdrew from this race.  Notice that he did not run well, or place in the money, for the rest of the day.]

 Willis finished 5th in the 5-car, 3-mile Australian Pursuit race behind Glenn Breed of Emporia, Kansas in his Buick Model 17, W. W. Brown of Kansas City, Missouri in a Buick Model 10, E. V. Bailey of Parnell, Missouri in a Buick #21 and Porter Meek of Maysville, Missouri in a Ford special.  Breed collected $50 from the purse for his victory, Brown received $25 and E. V. Bailey won $10.

Willis finished 4th in the 10-mile “free-for-all” race behind Glenn Breed of Emporia, Kansas in his Buick Model 17 who won $100, W. W. Brown of Kansas City, Missouri in a Buick Model 10 who won $35 and Porter Meek of Maysville, Missouri in a Ford special who won $20.

 

15-year-old Ruth Willis in the Scripps-Booth Model C roadster given to her by her father, Cleve Willis, Sr.  The car was fire engine red with white wire wheels.  This photo was taken at Hiawatha, Kansas in 1918.

October 2, 1913 – ½ mile dirt oval – Seneca Fairgrounds at Seneca, Kansas

Car:  Cleve Willis’ own Fal-Car “Blue Bird” race car

Finish:  The afternoon’s program consisted of several horse races, one motorcycle race and one automobile race.  The automobile race was won by Cleve Willis of Hiawatha, Kansas.

 

October 3, 1913 – ½ mile dirt oval – Seneca Fairgrounds at Seneca, Kansas

Car:  Cleve Willis’ own Fal-Car “Blue Bird” race car

Finish:  The afternoon’s program consisted of seven horse races, one motorcycle race and one automobile race.  The automobile race was won by W. W. Brown of Kansas City, Missouri in his Buick Model 10.  Cleve Willis finished in second place.  Porter Meek of Maysville, Missouri finished in third place in his Ford special and E. V. Bailey of Parnell, Missouri finished in fourth place in his Buick #21.

 

Selmer Ellsworth Feller (1895-1954), of Hiawatha, drew and then painted a picture of Willis’ Fal-Car “Blue Bird” race car and his picture was placed on display at Luesley & Walters’ furniture and variety store in Hiawatha in October of 1913.  Willis then placed the car on display at the Northeast Kansas Motor Company in Highland, Kansas for a few days later that same month as people were asking if they could view the actual car up close.  [Note:  Wouldn’t it be exciting if Selmer Feller’s picture could be located all these years later?]

By the spring of 1914 and mostly due to his bad experience in the races on September 27, 1913, Willis decided to sell the “Blue Bird.”  It was purchased by Clifford Theodore “Cliff” Hayes (1878-1952) of Reserve, Kansas.

Willis cut his ties to the Northeast Kansas Motor Company in 1914 and then opened his own agency in Hiawatha selling Chandler “Six” and Reo automobiles along with Reo motorcycles and Tumbull cyclecars.  He then built a Maxwell racing car, finishing it in time to race at the 1914 Brown County Fair.  One of the modifications that he made to the Maxwell was to fasten a railroad tie to the top of the left frame rail to help weigh that side of the car down.

 

September 2, 1914 – ½ mile dirt oval – Brown County Fairgrounds at Hiawatha, Kansas

Car:  Cleve Willis’ own Maxwell

Finish:  5,000 spectators were watching the start of the 10-mile final event when the cars driven by Willis and W. W. Brown of Kansas City, Missouri, locked wheels causing Willis’ Maxwell to fly off of the racetrack, up a steep bank and into the crowd, injuring two onlookers.  Willis’ Maxwell received quite a bit of damage in the accident but it was deemed to be repairable.  This was the first racing accident that Willis had ever been involved in and he was not injured in this one.  The race was stopped so the injured could be tended to.  During the delay, a collection was taken up to assist the two injured spectators.  After the short delay, the races were resumed with W. W. Brown winning the feature race in his Buick Bear Cat.

 

 

September 11, 1914 – ½ mile dirt oval – Seneca Fairgrounds at Seneca, Kansas

Car:  Cleve Willis’ own Maxwell

Finish:  These races consisted of two 5-mile heat races that were to make up the 10-mile feature race.  An unnamed driver of another Maxwell automobile won the 1st 5-mile heat race and Cleve Willis won the 2nd 5-mile heat race so the two drivers split the posted purse.

 

 

September 1, 1915 – ½ mile dirt oval – Brown County Fairgrounds at Hiawatha, Kansas

Car:  Cleve Willis’ personal automobile, a stock Buick “Six”

Finish:  Willis finished 2nd behind John F. Jersezy of Chanute, Kansas in the 4-car, 10-mile “free-for-all” race.

 

In 1915, Willis, with partners Charles O. Frazey and Robert Stahlcup, opened the Jackson County Automobile Company in Holton, Kansas; an agency where they could sell Maxwell automobiles.  There, Willis had a couple of men construct a new bed for an old Mitchell automobile.  The bed extended over the wheels and was said to have much more room than a Crawford bus that was on the market at that time.  Willis’ bus could carry 15 passengers and was described as an excellent place to work when he took it on the road.

 

Joe Miller

              “Joe Miller, a veteran AAA racing driver, who has been associated with such famous speedsters as Bob Burman, Earl Cooper and others, is one of the experts in the mechanical department of the Willis plant in Topeka.  Miller was racing at Corona Road, California at the time Burman was killed.  Miller was teammate with Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous American ace.  The choice of drivers to be with Pershing during the strenuous days of the war, rested with Rickenbacker and Miller – and Rickenbacker was selected.  Miller started his racing career in 1911 when he enlisted in the World War and served as a pilot in the air service.  Despite his interesting activities, he was a mechanic in the Willis plant for a long time before the slightest incident of his interesting experiences became known.”

                The above, titled “Willis Co. Exhibit,” appeared on page 13 of the September 9, 1922 issue of Topeka State Journal, which told about one of Cleve Willis’ businesses located in Topeka, Kansas at the time.  It should be noted that independent efforts to verify this story have not been successful to date.

 

Willis raced the Central Branch passenger train from Wetmore, Kansas to Whiting, Kansas, a distance of 12 miles, on July 5, 1915.  He was driving a Maxwell runabout and beat the train to Whiting by eight minutes.

Willis and his first wife divorced in April of 1916 and he was married second in September of 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri to Cora Jeannette Perkins (1894-1980).  They made their home in Kansas City and it was there that they became the parents of Grover Cleveland Willis, Jr. (1921-2010).  Cleve and Cora would also divorce later.

Willis became affiliated with the Velie Automobile Company of Moline, Illinois in 1916 and was working to get the Randel Motor Company up and going for them in Leavenworth, Kansas in the summer of that year.  He told a newspaper reporter there that Velie had become the 29th different make of automobile that he had been affiliated with in his career.

 

December 29, 1916 – Hill Climb eastbound up Government Hill in Leavenworth County north of Leavenworth, Kansas

Car:  6-cylinder Velie roadster owned by Dr. Charles McGee of Leavenworth

Finish:  Only 2 heat races were run on this evening with all of the purse going to the winner of the 1st heat race.  Willis and Frank Dale ran “neck & neck” for the 1st half of the 1st heat race before Willis pulled ahead to a 1- car length lead, winning that 1st heat race by that car one car length over Frank Dale of Leavenworth in a Chevrolet owned by O. K. Morrison of Leavenworth.

Willis finished 2nd in the 2nd heat race behind Frank Dale of Leavenworth in a Chevrolet owned by O. K. Morrison of Leavenworth.

 

Cleve Willis, Sr.

 

Willis was charged with child abandonment in Brown County, Kansas in March of 1917 but, after an extensive legal battle with his ex-wife, he agreed to begin paying her $50 a month for child support so the charges were dismissed.

In July of 1917 and noting that he “has built some racing cars that have shown up well on the speedway,” Willis, by then a salesman of Velie automobiles at the Randel Motor Company in Leavenworth, staged an exhibition.  As people gathered around, Willis, dressed all in white in a panama suit, white shoes and with the assistance of the owner of a Velie automobile, removed the transmission from the Velie, made a slight adjustment to it and had it ready to go back into the car, all within 13 minutes from the time the car was driven into the dealership.  Potential customers must have found the display impressive as Willis sold 12 new Velie automobiles in Leavenworth County within the next week.

By 1918, Cleve and Cora had moved to Leavenworth, Kansas where he opened a Cleveland tractor agency that he named the Willis Motor Company.  When Willis patented a new “tractor guide system” for the Cleveland tractor, he and partner a N. S. Flack of Council Grove, Kansas opened the Willis-Flack Manufacturing Company in Kansas City so they could produce the new systems themselves.

On June 15, 1918, Willis demonstrated a “Little Caterpillar tractor” for “scores of farmers” who had gathered at his Willis Motor Company in Leavenworth, Kansas.  Dressed in a silk shirt, “Palm Beach trousers and a natty straw hat”, he demonstrated the tractor to show that a farmer doesn’t need to get dirty to operate one; although his attire was not recommended.

During World War I, there was a shortage of Velie automobiles for sale due to the company switching over to making trucks for the military, so Willis added the Cole line of automobiles to the inventory at his Willis Motor Company.  The Coles became so popular that other local dealers purchased Coles from Willis to resell from their own showrooms.

Early in 1922, Willis became the sales manager of the Gregory Motor Company of Kansas City, Missouri but May of that year found him opening a distributorship for Packard and Velie automobiles in Topeka, Kansas that he called the Willis Motor Company.  Within just four months, the Willis Motor Company became the largest Packard distributor in the state of Kansas.  Always expanding, Willis opened a branch of his Willis Motor Company Packard distributorship in St. Joseph, Missouri near the end of 1922.  It was in the showroom of that business that he was stricken by a heart attack and passed away on October 30, 1930 at the age of 45.  He is buried in St. Joseph Memorial Park at St. Joseph, Missouri.  After Cleve’s death, Cora remarried and moved to California, taking Cleve’s youngest son with her.  She passed away in Los Angeles County, California in 1980.

 

 

 

Autograph signed in 1918

 

 

Cleve Willis, Sr. and his

mandolin, with wife Cora 

Cora Willis petting a deer as her husband, Cleve Willis, Sr., looks on

Cleve Willis, Sr. and his

mandolin, with wife Cora 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photographs on this web page are from the Willis family collection

 

 

 

Thank you:

Cynthia Barnes, Victoria Sewell and Michael Willis