A Brief History of the Ernest Willis Family

By Dawn Hicks
Granddaughter of Ernest Willis

The Willis family’s lineage originated in Wiltshire, England.  Ernest Willis was the third son of William Willis and Mary Simmonds.  The family immigrated to Canada from the Isle of Wight, where they were living at the time, in 1875, aboard The Vicksberg, landing in Quebec City.  Interestingly, The Vicksberg sank on the return trip. 

They settled on  Manitoulin Island, Howland Township. 

Ernest and Ada met and married on the Island. Ernest remained on the family farm for a time after his father’s death in 1889. Here, Violet, Grace, Harry, Ada & Jessie were born. The family moved to Thessalon, then West River where Clara, Alena & Ernie Jr. were born and Kathleen was born in Willisville.

Ernest was a Forest Ranger and he and Ada used to portage with canoe through the back lakes as far as Killarney checking the area for fires.  Before Cameron’s opened a store in Whitefish Falls, Ernest would canoe and portage to Espanola to purchase supplies for his family.  When the Algoma Eastern Railway was opened from Sudbury to Little Current, Ernest opened a store at Willisville and stocked supplies for sale to the residents and cottagers and for their own use.  In 1919, Ernest assumed the role of Postmaster and continued until his sudden death in 1928. 

Ernest was interested in education for his children.

In the early days of St. Augustine’s Mission in Whitefish Falls, The community around the Mission consisted of mostly native people and two white families, namely the John Cameron and the Ernest Willis families.  At the beginning of WWI, more white families were moving into the area and it was decided that there was a need for a school in the Mission area.  Chief Keshigobiness, known as Big John and Mr. Ernest Willis who assisted him greatly, worked under great difficulty in procuring a school.  They were guided by Bishop Thornloe and finally were able to open a school for those who wished to attend. 

The first school was in the home of Big John and opened Friday, October 13, 1916, by Rev S. H. Ferris of Garden River.  Mr. Duncan Bell was the first teacher.  The school continued until a fire burned down the log house, but a new building was soon found and some 20 children were gathered and taught until a proper school was built.  Big John and Ernest walked from one lumber camp to another and begged for lumber or money and the new building was erected in 1917. 

The Willis, Golden & other children from Willisville would walk along a path to the horseshoe curve and down the track to Whitefish Falls to attend school.  In 1931, Kathleen Willis and Dewey Golden were the first two students to pass their Entrance exams at the school.  Both went on to further studies.

“Condensed from an article by Mrs. R. W. Stump” 

The following is copied from and article in the Manitoulin Expositor dated 03 Jan. 1929. 


Mr. E. Willis 

On Xmas Eve about noon, Mr. Ernest Willis had gone into the woods to cut a little kindling wood to see him over the Christmas holidays, he had just cut a dry tree and in falling it, it broke off, & falling back struck Mr. Willis on the temple, and he fell into Mr. Ernest Spry's arms.  It killed him instantly.  Such was the sad news received in this distict almost immediately after everyone felt stunned, then bowed down with grief.  Mr Willis and his family have from the beginning been keen and zealous workers for this Mission and the school, and we deeply deplore our loss.

He was laid to rest on Wednesday last in Willisville, near his home, beside two of his loved ones.  The Rev. E. Weeks performed the last sad rites.  Indians and whites all mingled their tears for him.  Nothing that has occurred here in years has so stirred everyone living in this district.  Everyone fell strickened with grief, and we pray that God will sustain Mrs. Willis and her devoted children in there irreparable loss.

“ Article compliments of David Botting, great grand nephew of Ernest Willis” 

After Ernest’s death, Ada assumed the role of Postmaster and about 1932; she married Henry Bennett, lovingly called “Bento”.  Ada passed away 13 Nov. 1943 while undergoing surgery.  Before her death, her daughter, Mrs. Jessie Spry had received word that Inco was taking over the property that the Willis family had leased for 99 years.  It is said that if she had known this news, it would have killed her, as this place was her whole life.  Henry Bennett assumed the role of Postmaster after her death until late 1943. 

From the family of nine children, only Kathleen remains alive.  There are many descendants of Ernest and Ada Willis.

 Information from the Willis Family Archives


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