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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Willis & Crismond

Willis & Crismond, 1927

     The last ten years in the life of my great grandfather, George Washington Estes Row, were to be his most productive and gave a hint of future successes that might have been his had he not died unexpectedly at the age of thirty nine. He managed his own farm, Sunshine, as well as the old family homestead Greenfield for his sister Nannie. He also ran a thriving saw mill business with dozens of customers in Spotsylvania, Orange and Fredericksburg.

The Free Lance, 20 December 1887

     In the course of all these activities George W.E. Row had occasion to do business with many of the merchants and tradesmen of old Fredericksburg. The names of these enterprises and the remarkable men who ran them are now part of the half-remembered history of my home town. Myer & Brulle...J.B. Ficklin...Magrath & Chesley...Benjamin Goldsmith...George E. Chancellor and so many others.
     Among the longest lived of these companies and arguably the best known because of the stature of the men who owned it was Willis & Crismond. Established in the early 1870s at 424 Commerce (now William) Street, Willis & Crismond were grocers and commission merchants who sold seed, grain and fertilizers. Like many farmers in the region, George W.E. Row depended heavily on them both for their merchandise and for the credit they could extend.

     My Row ancestors had a personal and professional relationship with the Willis family dating back to the Civil War and continuing for 100 years. This connection began with Marion Gordon Willis, who served in Company I, Sixth Virginia Cavalry with my great grandfather.

Marion Gordon Willis (Central Rappahannock Heritage Center)

     M.G. Willis was born in the Indiantown area of Orange County on April 7, 1846. His father was Reverend John Churchill Willis, pastor of Flat Run Baptist Church from 1858 until his death in 1894. Marion's mother was Mary Catesby Woodford of Caroline County. Mary was a descendant of English naturalist Mark Catesby. She was also the great granddaughter of William Woodford.

General William Woodford (1734-1780)

     William Woodford was the owner of Windsor plantation in Caroline County (now part of Fort A.P. Hill, I believe). During the French and Indian War Woodford served with distinction as an ensign in George Washington's First Virginia Regiment. He is best known to history, however, as Brigadier General William Woodford of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. On December 9, 1775 he defeated forces under the command of Virginia Governor Lord Dunsmore at the battle of Great Bridge. This signal victory led to Lord Dunsmore's departure and permanently ended British rule in Virginia.
     General Woodford was later wounded at the battle of Brandywine. He recovered. He was captured during the unsuccessful defense of Charleston, South Carolina and was sent to New York as a prisoner of war. He died there aboard a British prison ship on November 13, 1780 and is buried at Trinity Church.
     William Woodford's son,  John Thornton Woodford (uncle of Mary Catesby Woodford), took his turn fighting the British during the War of 1812. This 100 year tradition of military service was part of Marion Willis' DNA when the Civil War started in 1861. At the beginning of the conflict Marion served as a scout for the Confederate army during its maneuvers near the Rapidan River. He joined the Sixth Virginia Cavalry in 1864. As he prepared to leave for battle his mother sewed onto his fatigue shirt carnelian buttons capped with gold. These very same buttons had been worn on the shirts of William and John Woodford when they fought the British.
     In September 1864 M.G. Willis was wounded but recovered and rejoined his regiment. On January 24, 1865 he was admitted to the Confederate hospital in Charlottesville suffering from frostbite, likely the result of the Beverly raid in West Virginia. He was released from the hospital a month later.
     After the war Marion returned to Orange and lived with his parents. On May 17, 1866 he married his cousin Lucy Taylor Gordon. They moved to Fredericksburg in 1873 and soon thereafter he went into business with Horace F. Crismond. In addition to the long success of his business on Commerce Street, M.G. Willis also played an important role in the civic and economic life of Fredericksburg. He was elected to the city council in 1885 and served many terms there. In 1897 he was president of the Rappahannock, Fredericksburg and Piedmont Telephone Company (Crismond was vice president). Willis also became president of the Farmers and Merchants State Bank (where my mother worked in the early 1960s).
     On June 15, 1900 Marion G. Willis was appointed mayor of Fredericksburg to complete the term of Absalom P. Rowe, who died in office. (Twenty nine years later history would repeat itself when Marion's nephew Jere Willis was appointed mayor of Fredericksburg to complete the term of the late J. Garnett King.) Willis was elected mayor in his own right on July 11, 1902 and served until June 30, 1904.
     After the death of his partner H.F. Crismond in 1903 Marion was joined in the business by his son Marion Willis, Jr. until the younger Willis' death in 1920 at age 33. Marion's wife Lucy died in 1906.
     Marion Gordon Willis died just shy of his 84th birthday on February 10, 1930. The funeral was held at Fredericksburg Baptist Church, where he had been senior deacon. A stained glass window dedicated to his family's memory is installed there. Marion Willis is buried in the Fredericksburg Cemetery.

Fredericksburg Baptist Church

Fredericksburg Cemetery

     Marion's younger brother, Benjamin Powell Willis, established a successful law practice in Fredericksburg. His law partner was his son Jere Willis. The Willis law firm became the attorneys and investment advisors for my great grandmother Lizzie Houston Row and my grandfather Horace Row after Granville Swift left Fredericksburg. The Willises provided a number of services for the Rows over the years. Most notably, perhaps, they were made trustees of the old Greenfield property by then owner J.S. Barnes in November 1925 in order to secure a $1000 note held by Horace Row. Greenfield was sold at auction to William Barnes in 1928.

Jere Willis to Horace Row 12 March 1927

     Benjamin P. Willis was an honorary pallbearer at my grandfather's funeral in 1939.

     Horace Frazer Crismond was born in Spotsylvania on June 15, 1849. He was the younger brother of Joseph Patrick Henry Crismond, Spotsylvania clerk of court. Their parents were John and Jane McDaniel Crismond. The 1870 census shows that 21 year old Horace was working as a store bookkeeper and living in the household of Fredericksburg grocer and grain dealer William E. Bradley, who later became business manager of The Free Lance.
Horace Frazer Crismond
     Like his partner Marion G. Willis, Horace Crismond had political ambition and was an active member in the Fredericksburg Baptist Church. Crismond served in the House of Delegates 1885-1887. He also represented Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1901. One of the aims of this undertaking was to disenfranchise black voters without technically violating the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In an article about him during that time Horace appeared to adopt a more moderate tone than some of his rabid Democratic brethren on the subject of "negro suffrage."

Horace F. Crismond 1887

     Also like Marion Willis, Horace Crismond was long dedicated to the Baptist Church of Fredericksburg. One of his duties was to take the Sunday offering home with him after church and deposit it on Monday. One Sunday in the 1880s he managed to misplace the church's money. After a frustrating few days of fruitless searching Crismond consulted with other church officials and together they guessed what the take would have been that day. Crismond wrote a personal check to the church's account and the matter was settled. Forty years later that money was discovered in a desk once used by Willis & Crismond. Horace had evidently stopped by his office on his way home and had forgotten that he had put it in a desk drawer. Since he had already covered the loss this money was given to his descendants.
     Horace Crismond died January 17, 1903. His obituary appeared in The Daily Star on January 19th and is presented below in its entirety:

     The death of Horace Crismond is thought to be at least partly responsible for the bizarre turn taken in the life of his brother JPH Crismond. Years later Horace's son dedicated a stained glass window in his parents' memory at Fredericksburg Baptist Church. Horace Crismond is buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg Baptist Church

Confederate Cemetery, Fredericksburg

     Such then was the measure of these men with whom George W.E. Row transacted much business during the last ten years of his life.

Invoice to George W.E. Row, October 1882

Check to Willis & Crismond, May 1882

     In 1882 my great grandfather borrowed $95.40 from Willis & Crismond in order to buy fertilizer for his wheat crop, which he put up as collateral for the loan.

George W.E. Row note for $95.40

     Post cards were often used for business correspondence in those days. Among the many in my great grandfather's business papers is this one dated January 7, 1882. Willis & Crismond acknowledge the receipt of $25, "Thanking you for your kind expression of good will and extending same cordially to you."

     After George Row's death in 1883 his sister Nannie assumed the full burden for farming Greenfield. In October 1884 she borrowed $28 to purchase Peruvian guano, pledging her wheat crop as security.

Nannie Row's note for $28


  1. Enjoyable read, as always. On another note, do you know much about the following surnames mentioned above? Rowe (and is there a connection between the Rowes and your Row family?) The name Rowe occurs a couple of times in descendants of my Joseph Hall. Also, is there a connection to the Payne family? Two of them are mentioned as pallbearers, and my Joseph Hall's mother-in-law's maiden name was Payne. (Tomzin Payne.) Just curious if you have come across those families in your research. Thanks!

  2. Dear Mr. Sullivam:
    I'd love to be in touch with you about the portrait of General Woodford on your website. Do you have an email address I might use to contact you?
    Many thanks,

    1. Thanks for reading, Maggie. I can be contacted at