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Who was William Willis and What is the Willis Collection?

Photograph of the glass cases in the Portland Room that hold The Willis Collection.

The Willis Collection

Have you walked into the Portland Room and wondered about the crumbling leather-bound books behind glass that line the reading room?

These books belonged to William Willis, lawyer, editor, businessman, diarist, Portland mayor, historian…

Willis was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1794. The family moved to Portland in 1803. Willis attended Harvard College, graduating in 1813, and then went on to study law under Prentiss Mellen and Boston Judge Peter O. Thacher. After a few years in Boston and a few years of travel, he returned to Portland to practice law as a partner of Mellen and, later, as a partner of William Pitt Fessenden.

Willis was an inveterate journal-keeper, writing in his diary almost daily from 1840 until 1870, the year of his death. They were not tracked down until 1957 when local historian William B. Jordan, Jr. discovered that they were in the possession of a great-grand-daughter of Willis who graciously allowed the library to take possession of them. (Library patrons can read the journals on microfilm.) In this entry from August 4,1864, Willis writes that he attended “a most loyal union discourse emphatically anti-slavery. Rain in the morning…”

Some entries from Willis' diary of August 1864.

Fragment of Willis’ diary from 1864.

The Portland Public Library also holds Willis’ own personal library. Willis was one of the founders of the Portland Public Library and served as its first president (1867-1870).

Image of the bookplate found in William Willis' personal books.

Bookplate

Somehow, despite his law practice, his responsibilities in public office and on the boards of various institutions, his nine children, and the keeping of a daily journal, Willis also managed to write history. His The History of Portland from 1632 to 1864 (published 1865) is still widely consulted by historians today.

Portrait of William Willis

William Willis

 

posted: , by Gabrielle Daniello
tags: Adults | Portland History
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