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Willett, George R. 1826 – 1898


Posted By: Joy Moore (email)
Date: 11/19/2020 at 14:14:39

Source: Decorah Republican Dec. 15, 1898 P 1 C 5, 6

On Monday morning at about the hour of nine o’clock, all that was mortal of this distinguished citizen ceased to be. At the age of a little more than 72 years,—forty-one of which had been spent in Decorah, — there closed a career that was without a stain; a private life without a blemish; and a public relation to his follows, to the community, and the country and state of more than usual honor and efficiency.
GEORGE R. WILLETT was born at Lacadie, Province of Quebec, Nov. 11th, 1826, and the first twenty-eight years of his life were spent in Canada. He was liberally educated in private schools, but an active temperament and a natural taste for mechanics led him early to master the details of the business of woolen manufacturing, in which his father was engaged in Chambly, P. Q. Such aptitude had he for the occupation that if a business adversity had not come to him he might never have entered upon the career of a lawyer, or sought a home in the west.
In partnership with his brother Thomas, he had succeeded his father in business, and at the end of a season of large production all the profits and considerable capital were swept away by heavy importations of English-made goods. There was no tariff to protect, and the English makers used the Canada market as a slop-bowl into which they would throw their over-productions. This experience caused him to change the entire tenor of his life, and made of him, ever afterwards, an intense protectionist.
In private, and “on the stump,” he for years advocated the protective policy, not because it was the theory of his party, but from bitter experience: not for increased profits but to protect the home-maker from being made the victim of cheap foreign over-production. Transferring his interest in the mill to his brother, he turned his attention to the law. He had married Olinda C. Kellogg, Jan. 20th, 1848, and at that time the wife and two children were dependent upon-him for support. Removing to Champlain, N. Y., he found a favorable opening and he entered upon the study of the law with an intensity and a thoroughness which has always been a marked feature of his character. In 1856, when thirty years old, he graduated from the Albany, (N. Y.) law school, than which there was at that time no higher institution for legal education. The following year he came to Iowa, located in Decorah, Nov. 20th, 1857, and engaged in partnership with the late Judge E. E, Cooley. This gave him, at once, active occupation, but at moderate compensation. Subsequently he headed the law firm of Willett & Burdick — the junior member being Hon. M. V. Burdick, deceased. While thus engaged the War of the Rebellion broke out. The call to arms fired every ounce of patriotic blood that flowed in his veins. The many years he had lived on foreign soil intensified his patriotism. The Decorah Guards were in existence, with Capt. John Sampson, a veteran of the English army, m command, whoso military experience dated back to the battle of Waterloo. Age barred him from serving as a leader, and when a second choice had to be made Mr. Willett was unanimously chosen. As such he went to Des Moines —overland in those day—and tendered his company to Gov. Kirkwood. There were more than a score of such tenders ahead of him, and when a second call was made and the tender could be accepted the Decorah Guards became Company D, of the 3d Iowa volunteers. The regiment followed into the field the first almost instantaneously, and as a matter of fact moved out of the state a few hours in advance of the 2d regiment. It was put upon guard duty in northern Missouri, along the line of the Hannibal & St. Joe railway. The first battle fought by it was at Blue Mills Landing, Sept. 7th, 1861. In it Capt. Willett was wounded in the knee and so disabled that he never wholly recovered. After some months, when it became evident that he could not resume active field work, he resigned, reengaging in business. In 1862 he was appointed County Treasurer to succeed T. W. Burdick, who had also enlisted for the war and became captain of Co. D, 6th Iowa Cavalry. The duties of that office were not congenial to Mr. Willett, and he refused an election: but he did accept the office of County Judge and was elected and re-elected thereto, serving for four years, viz: from Jan. 1st, 1864 to 1868. The duties of the office rotated largely to probate matters, were in line with his legal training, and permitted him to continue in general practice in the higher courts.
In 1871 Mr. Willett was elected State Senator to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Hon. H. C. Bulls, who had been elected Lieut. Governor. In 1873 he was re-elected, serving in all through three sessions and six years in that honorable and influential position. He at once took an important place in that body and the results of his work as a legislator are embodied in the statutes of to-day. In 1873-4 be was so esteemed by his associates that he was elected president pro tem of the Senate, and in 1875 he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is one of the three most important committees of any General Assembly.
During his incumbency the all-absorbing and very important problem of state control of railway corpo{?}ing was pending. It was a fight to the finish; and to the legislation thus begun and since enacted is due the present satisfactory settlement of that problem. The proposition that railways were in any way subjects of state legislation was denied by the railways. The ablest lawyers differed in opinion; and a decision was not reached until the question had been adjudicated through state courts up to the Supreme Court of the United States. It was exceedingly important that the legislation upon which litigation would be based should be of the soundest and safest kind. Senator Willett believed in and advocated state control. To the making of such legislation he gave his best legal talent. He was on the side of the people in that contest, and as we now know the people won their case. The service he gave the state of Iowa was of the highest character. If he had done nothing else to deserve fame and honor his labors in this cause were so efficient as to deserve that he be long remembered by a grateful constituency. Mr. Willett never sought office. All those to which he was chosen were given without the asking. His love was for his profession, and he avoided the things which led him away from it. His rank as a lawyer, we need not say, was very high. In the final test of ability who is there that excelled him? Never eloquent; not an orator; he had to depend upon the strength of his position for ultimate victory. Who can remember an instance in which he failed in the court of last resort? His cases in the Supreme Court were an almost unbroken line of victories. The reason is not hard to find:—From the beginning he was thoroughly grounded in the law as based upon legal principles, and he studied his cases from their underlying principles. Let it be added as he sometimes would say to his intimate friends, “If I can feel that the moral equities, as well as the legal principles, in a case, are with me, I am not afraid of anyone or of the final result.” This tells the story of his life: he wanted “the moral equities” on his side always.
It is not necessary to rehearse the latter incidents of his life. We have said that in 1848 he married Miss Olinda C. Kellogg. In January last year they passed their golden wedding anniversary. Six children were born to them—five sons and one daughter. The latter died in infancy, ere she was a year old. The sons all grew to manhood. These are Rev. Mahlon Willett, D. D., now pastor of the Decorah Congregational church; Norman Willett, his partner in business: Rev. George Willett, a Methodist pastor at Morris, Minn., William and Ernest, all surviving except the latter, who died about four years ago.
The funeral services, which were largely attended, were held yesterday afternoon at the Congregational church, under the direction of Col. Hughes Post, of which deceased was a member. Rev L. L. Lockard, of the M. E. church, delivered the sermon and the remains were laid at rest in the Phelps cemetery.

Phelps Cemetery

Winneshiek Obituaries maintained by Bruce Kuennen.
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