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Nostalgia Magazine

A SPOKANE LEGEND

For more than 50 years "Wild Willie" was a fixture in Spokane. People remembered him as the robust mountain man who wore only a pair of shorts summer and winter and traveled with several animals. He was also known as a kind person, hard worker and a disciple of nature who dressed in his unique attire year-round.

Born a twin in 1884 in Mount Ayr, IA, Willis Ray WILLEY soon developed an appreciation of nature. His love of the outdoors drew him to Spokane in 1905, when he was a pale, skinny, sickly young man. Willie, perhaps in an attempt to strengthen his immune system, started to shed his clothing about the time WWI started. Gradually, as his body acclimated to cold temperatures, Willie wore fewer clothes until he was down to a pair of shorts and sandals. His lack of dress did, in fact, help his health problems, as he no longer suffered from colds even though he would often go polar bear swimming and ice skating on Liberty Lake in 1930. As Willie's health problems disappeared he put on some muscle and life became more interesting to him. Because of the way he dressed, the clothes he wore and his philosophy about nature, he inherited nicknames such as "Wild Willie," "the Nature Boy," "Wild Man" and even "Tarzan." Other cities referred to him as "Spokane Willie." He was also called an "Original Flower Child" and an "Early-Day Hippie," but he roamed the county and spread his philosophy and way of life long before Woodstock. After his untimely death, Willie was referred to as "Spokane's Ambassador of Good Will."

Willie made his living doing odd jobs for people around town, salvaging iron and twisted car parts. He worked construction on Farragut Naval Training Station in shorts and carpenter's apron, where he earned a reputation of being a hard worker.

Later, Willie sold picture postcards of himself and his animals out of his car that he built using parts from an Overland, a Model T and other cars, and he sometimes lived in his car. When he traveled he relied mostly on the sales of his postcards and any money he could make by scavenging along the roadside. He collected bottles and traded them in at stores. In his postcards he is often barefooted, smiling and relaxed, looks healthy as do his pets.

Willie was known for his kindness and his sense of humor. It is said that the shelves of his home were lined with clocks and Willie would say, "C'mon in, I've got all kinds of time." Willie's pets were almost as famous as he was. He was always seen with a horde of little creatures. Over the years he raised dogs, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, raccoons, parrots, shrews, coyotes, skunks, turtles and even a monkey. After Willie's death local organizations stepped in to take care of his animals.

Willie made a new pair of shorts out of mountain lion hide to go to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933, the shorts also had a shoulder strap which tended to give him the appearance of a cave man. He traveled cross-county in a 1904 Reo and encountered police in every city, was arrested and jailed a number of times because of the way he dressed. During his stay in Chicago's jail, his hair and beard were cut off and he became sick for the first time and stayed sick for three months!

1940 found Willie and his dogs and other pets at Treasure Island, San Francisco, and postcard collectors may have that one in their collection as well.

At one point Willie traveled back to his mother's funeral in Iowa and left his animals to the care of his nephew, A. E. MURPHY. Disagreements and misunderstandings apparently lead to a court summons and a judgment [for a $140 debt] against Willie when he didn't show up in court - the final result was that his 40 acres of land were sold to a man named Francis CAVERS at a sheriff's auction. Willie, continuing to return to the land he believed was still his, was fined for trespassing several times but chose, instead, to serve time in jail. Eventually, he agreed to not go back to the land and Spokane police eventually grew tired of arresting him every time someone complained about his clothing and they stopped sending him to jail.

After his death on May 12, 1956 - passing out from a condition of cerebral edema while at the wheel of his car, hitting a tree and dying on impact - the people of Spokane realized how much they missed him. His body was laid in state, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, at Hennessey Funeral Home, and was visited by hundreds of people. His grave is at Fairmount Cemetery.

  Willis Ray WILLEY in his 1904 REO, 1933. WILLEY planned to drive this car from Spokane Falls to the 1933-34 World's Fair in Chicago.

Visit David's blog about Willie WILLEY and the above photograph at
http://www.ewillys.com/2011/01/21/wild-man-willis-roy-willey/.

Photograph of the WILLEY Brothers courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. Gerald WILLEY

Photograph of Willie & The 'Car' courtesy of David Eilers

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2010

The above postcard was dated November of 1951, around the time he stopped in Walla Walla. The vehicle in this postcard was equipped with a Ford Model T engine, a Chevrolet transmission, Ford Model A front axle, an Oakland radiator and a Studebaker rear axle.

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Walla-Walla Washington
November 13, 1951

Pantless 'Nature Boy' Visits
Willey's Spokane's Original

By Ed Lundy

"Well sir, you may not believe this, but I haven't worn a pair of shoes or clothing, other than these shorts, since 1918 - too much trouble and bother. Besides, clothes ain't healthful."

This is how W. R. Willey, who calls himself Spokane's original Nature Boy, accounted for his appearance in Walla Walla clad only in a pair of worn shorts. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees and a cold rain was falling as the 67-year-old nature advocate puttered barefooted about his house - built on a model T truck.

He was returning to Spokane for the winter after spending the summer touring the southern states. Sharing his mobile house was a miniature menagerie which included Mexican hairless dogs, a raccoon named "Big Boy", tame rats and a guinea pig who remains anonymous.

"Nudie there," Willey pointed to a shivering Mexican hairless dog, "doesn't care for this Walla Walla weather. Too cold. It'll be colder in Spokane though, so he'd better get used to it."

He shrugged off his own shivering and goose flesh. "Been down South too long. I'm not toughened up yet," he apologized. His hairy figure was topped by a mane of shoulder-length hair and a luxuriant beard.

NO HAIRCUT SINCE 1933

"I haven't had a hair cut or shave since 1933," he commented.

Willey finances his travels by selling bottles he finds here and there, scrap meal gleaned from dumps and second hand furniture or knick-knacks.

"It don't take much to keep me going. My boys," he gestured toward several dogs peering out of the front door of the house, "pretty much take care of themselves."

His venerable model T was a crazy-quilt of patches, mended parts and pieces of other autos. Three window panes from some house formed the windshield.

The police, Willey complained, are his No. 1 headache. Their first reaction upon seeing him is to throw him in jail or run him out of town.

"I should be an expert on jails. I think I've been in ever one in the country," the nature lover said.

Willey was born in Iowa and came to the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century. After trying his hand at wheat farming near Spokane several years, he gave up and decided to return to nature.

"Never felt better in my life, either. Except I'll live to be a hundred or so," he declared.

The Ottawa Evening Citizen
Ottawa, Canada
Monday, January 05, 1953, Page 17

Willie "Returns To Nature"
Claims Shorts and Beard Proper Dress For Winter

By The Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. - Willis Roy (sic) (Willie) Willey is a husky healthy 68-year-old specimen of mankind who for 32 years has been practicing the theory that the proper dress for northern winters is a pair of shorts and a heavy beard.

Since 1920, Willie has developed from a "puny, sickly, ghost of a man" - as he put it - into a confident character who could hold his own on the weekly wrestling card.

He goes almost as unclothed as his animal friends in weather which would send Eskimos scurrying for an electric blanket. He wears only a pair of shorts all winter, spring and fall, and adds a green visor in the summer.

The saga began simply enough three decades ago when Willie decided to "return to nature."

He gradually removed the garments of civilization while he finally was wearing only shorts. His body became so accustomed to life in the raw that now he says he's no more bothered by weather "than any other unclothed animal."

Philosophical View

Willie's quest for health and peace of mind has cost him court appearances in Boston, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco and other cities. It has given him a philosophical view of the operation of civilization against the non-conformists.

There's no illusion about the health and hardiness of the man who is well past his old age pension anniversary.

He boasts a tremendous physique, flowing beard and mane of hair. He can strike matches on the soles of his feet. The severest winters, when temperatures drop to 30 below, find him wearing only his khaki shorts - although he occasionally pulls on a pair of rubber galoshes - and in 32 years he hasn't even had a case of sniffles.

Once he took a mile-high ride in an open airplane, clad only in his shorts, when it was six below freezing on the ground.

Dr. Arthur E. Lein, head of the Spokane County Health Department, says Willie's skin has become leathery and board tough. "Thirty-two years of rugged living has developed a layer of 'insulation fat' which increases weather tolerance."

The bachelor "Nature Boy" tours the country in a 1922 Model T Ford, converted into a truck-trailer. On all sides of the vehicle are cages containing a raccoon, a hairless South African dog (blind in one eye), a possum, two rabbits, some white mice and a mother dog with four pups.

He earns enough to care for himself and his animal friends through the sale of bottles and scrap metal he finds along the highway and an occasional "fee" collected from amateur photographers.

Willie's first visit to a town usually brings excited reports to police of "a crazy man walking around naked in the snow." Officers check, and after talking with Willie chalk one up for nature.

Willie's nomadic life started after he failed in his personally-conducted legal battles to regain possession of his mountain farm near here. The "Stump Farm" was auctioned off in 1922 for $182 at a sheriff's sale to satisfy a $140 debt.

After 32 years of life in the raw, Willie is determined not to be driven back into the ways of civilization.

He has five brothers living in Iowa, including a twin. All dress conventionally. Willie gets occasional letters begging him to "reform." Willie answers his brothers - and all others:

"I just want to lead the kind of life I have chosen for myself. Why should others try to make me conform to their ideas?"

The Spokane Daily Chronicle
Spokane, Washington
Thursday, May 31, 1956, Page 3

REST IN PEACE

This new headstone, finished in time for Memorial Day, marks the last resting place of Willis R. (Willie) Willey, whose year-around attire of only an eye-shade and shorts won him nation-wide attention. Willey, who was killed recently in an automobile accident here, was given one of the better plots in Fairmount cemetery, and Washington Monumental company donated the stone. Hal W. Morrill of the latter firm designed the inscription.

Photograph courtesy of Spokane Daily Chronicle
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015

The Spokane Review
Spokane, Washington
January 13, 1995

City Honors Clothing-Optional Folk Hero Willie Willey
By Dan Hansen

Willie Willey, the Spokane folk hero who spurned convention and clothes, was honored Thursday in the most conventional of ceremonies.

Civic leaders unveiled a plaque for Willey on Riverfront Park’s Canada Island.

Those who gathered were a respectable and fully clothed group of Spokane boosters. In other words, they represented everything Willey shunned.

“I am back in Spokane because this place is no worse than any other place,” Willey told reporters in 1951, after 10 years of travels. “No matter where I go, the cops give me a rough time.”

In Chicago, they threw him in jail for wearing only shorts. In Portland, it was for trying to convince a young woman to disrobe. In Spokane, Willey repeatedly was called before judges for trespassing on a farm he lost in a 1921 court decision.

Willey wasn’t the center of attention Thursday, but a sidebar in a ceremony honoring seven early Spokane Christians whose nearest connection to “Nature Boy” Willey is that they all are dead. Willey often told reporters that he stripped to his shorts in 1917 after an argument with church leaders.

The Christians got a plaque, too, guiding visitors to Inspiration Point, where they can read all about Spokane Indian Chief Garry and six white missionaries.

The Willey plaque on the park’s Hamilton bridge tells no story. Instead, it draws attention to Willie Willey Rock, a boulder mid-stream off Canada Island.

“Willie was a rock,” said Michael Maras, who asked the park board in 1977 to name the truck-sized rock for the man who wore only shorts and made pets of wild animals.

At first the board rejected the idea.

“I wasn’t impressed” with Willey when he was alive, board member Wayne Guthrie said during the debate. “And I’m not impressed now.”

Two months later, with Guthrie absent, the board reversed its decision on the condition that Maras provide a plaque. Maras’ wife died in 1978, “and I put my Willie Willey stuff away,” said Maras, 68, who did not attend the ceremony.

The rock would have remained unmarked if not for former Spokane Mayor Neal Fosseen. A longtime parks advocate, Fosseen purchased Willey’s plaque, and the one for the Christians, as well.

“People kind of laughed at him during his lifetime,” Fosseen said. “Then, after he was gone, they said ‘Gee, he’s a nice fellow. It’s too bad not to have him around anymore.”’

Willey has gotten so much publicity since his death, it’s almost as if he were still around. His press is getting better, too.

Before death, he was portrayed as a curiosity, a nonconformist or a bum.

But 400 people attended his funeral in 1956, and the legend of Willie Willey as a disciple of simplicity - Spokane’s own Henry Thoreau - was born.

Spokane businesses celebrated Willie Willey Day on Feb. 22, 1991, by asking folks to “dress down.” Dozens of readers wrote or called The Spokesman-Review in 1993, when a writer asked if anyone remembered Willey.

No one is a bigger fan than Maras. The Spokane Valley resident said he’s heard stories of Willey lifting cars while their owners changed flat tires and talking despondent businessmen out of jumping off the Monroe Street Bridge.

“Anything that grew out of the ground, he could make food out of it,” said Maras. “The guy had no sin in him.”

A plaque is not nearly enough recognition for Willey, said Maras.

“I’d like to see a movie made about this man.”

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015

Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, September 10, 2015, Page 14

By Mike Avitt

As promised, here's your half-naked man in the woods. What an incredible photograph this is and to have two iconic Ringgold County figures in the same picture is a historian's dream. This is also Snapshots of History article number 200 so let's celebrate!

The Mount Ayr Depot Museum was the recipient of images, letters, and other paper items from the estate of Donna Howard, Orr Fisher's niece. This happened by way of Iowa State University and we got paintings, as well. And we weren't the only ones. Other non-profit organizations got paintings and as you may see a large Orr Fisher work on display at the Mount Ayr Public Library. I'll tell you more in the future articles, but this week we're looking at Willis Ray Wiley.

I wrote about Willie Willey in the January 13, 2011 Mount Ayr Record-News (Snapshots of History article #4) and I don't have much new information, but I still get requests to write about him so let's see what I have.

Twins Willis Ray and Willard Ray were born to John and Martha (Thomas) Wiley in Mount Ayr on September 15, 1884. Both boys are seen in a 1902 Mount Ayr High School football team photo, but I don't see evidence that either one graduated from high school. Willard stayed in Mount Ayr working as a mason and a plumber. He was the father of Gerold Wiley of Mount Ayr.

Willis ended up in Hillyard, Washington, a suburb of Spokane. Hillyard was annexed by Spokane in 1924 which gave Willis yet another nickname, "The Wild Man of Spokane." He apparently had a relative there and obtained a piece of property about 1917. It was about this time Willie Willey changed his lifestyle. The reason for this change is in dispute but the results are not. Willie, as he was now known, wore only khaki shorts, believing that fresh air and sunshine were essential for good health. He grew his hair and beard giving him an appearance that frightened many.

In 1921, Willie came back for his mother's funeral (his address in her obituary is given as Hillyard, WA), stayed too long, and lost his property in Hillyard. Willie repeatedly went to jail for trespassing on the new owner's property and his trips to jail would continue for most of his life.

A book was written about Willie, entitled, "The Life of Willie Wiley," by Keith L. Yates in 1966, ten years after Willie died in an auto accident caused by a medical condition. There is also information on the internet about Willis Ray Willey, but most of these sources give his middle name as Roy. I don't know how that got started. There are many pictures of Willie Willey because of all the different postcards of him. He had postcards made of himself, the cars he drove, and the exotic animals he surrounded himself with to sell during his journeys.

Oh, yes, Willie was a traveling man. He drove from Spokane to Chicago in 1933 to attend the World's Fair there, stopping in Ringgold County along the way. He also spent time in New York and California. I encourage my readers to see his modes of transportation on the internet.

I know Willie spent a lot of time in Mount Ayr during the 1930s because Willard died December 15, 1935 and his obituary says Willie's address at that time was Mount Ayr. I believe Willie spent most of the 1940s and 50s in Spokane. There is a monument in Spokane dedicated to "The Ambassador of Goodwill" Willie Willey. "Nature Boy" didn't please everyone but he pleased himself.

I want to believe this week's photo was taken in the early 1930s. Be sure to get on the waiting list for Keith Yates' book about Willie Willey as the Mount Ayr Public Library has that book.

And the finished painting of Willie Willey? I believe it is still in the possession of Iowa State University. I hear they are going to auction it off, but I don't know if they are aware who the subject is. Even if we don't get the painting, we've got this fantastic picture!

Photograph courtesy of Mount Ayr Record-News
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015


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