Magnolia House was built in 1854 for Peter J Willis and his wife, Caroline Womack. It was named after their daughter and first child to be born here (Magnolia Petroleum Company was also named for her).
Ilai and Melissa Davis bought the house completely furnished in 1868. Magnolia House was occupied continuously by their descendants until 2013, who preserved much of the original furniture, which was brought here by boat and wagon from New York.
The house was recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1966 and is still a private residence.
In the 1930s, Mary Davis, who was by then the owner of Magnolia House (having inherited it from her father Ilai Davis) wrote the history of the house in a letter to Fannie Ratchford. The letter should not be considered to be an authoritative history of the house or Montgomery, as it is lacking in primary sources of information about details prior to Ms Davis' residence in the house. However, it is a story that is rich in details about the furnishings and plantings as they must have been in the house's early years and brings the reader back in time.
"In fifteen years this house will be a hundred years old. Built of heart pine on a foundation of heavy oak sills, it will with proper care last well into its second century.
When the house was built in 1854, the town itself was less than twenty years old. The eight oaks that once made the back yard a place of stateliness and beauty were trees of the forest that had covered the site. The largest red oak that died in the drouth of 1918 was a hundred forty-two years old. Its annual rings could be counted back to 1776.
This section was a part of Austin’s fourth and last colony. The fame of his first colonies naturally attracted to this one a fine type of men and women. A number of these colonists came in 1830, but they did not receive their land grants from the Mexican government until 1831. When the colonists came, they found an Indian trading post on Town Creek that had been established in 1827, This became a trading center for the colonists, a small settlement, that acquired the name of Montgomery from the family name of the owner’s mother. The old settlers always spoke of it as “the old town under the hill”.
In the summer of 1837, an enterprising land owner, anticipating the creation of a county by the next congress, platted a town on the present site, a half-mile north of the little settlement. The new town took its name from the old town under the hill. A sale of town lots on the first Monday in September was advertised in the Texas Telegraph in July. Among other inducements to settlers, the following were listed: “It is expected that a new county will be organized at the next session of congress, embracing this section of country, in which event the town of Montgomery, in a central position, must be selected as the seat of justice. The San Jacinto affords an excellent means of navigation to this point. The most direct route from the city of Houston to Robertson’s colony and Red River settlements, and from Bevil’s settlement to Washington, pass through this town. The great extent of good land lying contiguous, and its increasing and enterprising agricultural population, cannot fail of making this one of the most flourishing inland towns in this Republic”.
In the early forties, two young men, Peter and Richard Willis, originally from Maryland, selected the new town as a good business location. Many well-to-do planters, large slave-owners, settled here during the forties and fifties. Montgomery was the trading center of a large territory, being the only town in the county after the county was reduced to its present size, with the exception of Danville, a very small settlement. By the opulent fifties, the town’s golden age, the Willis general merchandise store had grown into a large business. One of the brothers made an annual buying trip to New York every summer. They had married Montgomery girls soon after coming to the town.
By 1854, Peter Willis felt able to build a handsome home. They had previously lived in a one-and-a-half story log house on the same large lot, that opened directly onto the side street, called Caroline Street, in honor of Mrs. Willis. This old building, used by the Willises as a stable, and by the Davises as a pigeon house and for storing plows and garden tools, was not torn down for nearly twenty-five years. It made a fascinating play-house that attracted all the children in the neighborhood. There were two upper rooms on one side of the house, with walls only about three feet high, like the gallery of a theater, which were reached by a crude and shaky stairway.
A carpenter named Shelton assisted by capable slaves, built the new home. The lumber was hand planed by the workmen as it was needed. The home was larger than it is today. On the south side, where there is now a pergola, there was a kitchen twenty feet square, with a gallery around it on two sides. And on the west side, there was an extension from the main house of two rooms. The first one, used as a playroom, for some unknown reason was always called the “lumber room”. The small end room was a crude bathroom and a closet for linens. The bathroom had wide cracks in the floor, and two troughs for pouring water in and out.
While the home was going up, Sam Houston, a frequent visitor to Montgomery, must have strolled up from town often with his friend, Willis, to see how the work was coming along. Later, he was an occasional guest in the home. Mr. Willis was a jovial man, an inimitable story-teller, and one can imagine that his home was a center of hospitality.
When Peter Willis made his trip to New York in that summer of 1854, he bought furniture for the new home. This was shipped by water to Galveston, thence up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, where it was transferred to lumbering ox-wagons, drawn by long teams of oxen. A hazardous journey, this last fifty miles over the rough roads to Montgomery, for the tall gilt-framed pier-glass that still hangs in the same place, other mirrors, the marble-top tables of the rosewood parlor set, glass candle-shades, fragile china vases, and bric-a-brac. There was also dining-room, hall, and bedroom furniture. The set for the girls’ bedroom was white, decorated with a small floral design, in pink and green. Its fragile, Victorian beauty was loved by girls of three generations.
When the house was completed, a landscape gardener laid off the grounds. As was the custom of the time, wild-peach trees (called now cherry laurel) bordered the front walk, and, from the gate, framed in green the white columned porch. Shell-bordered walks, more definitely outlined in the spring with yellow jonquils and white narcissi, led between white-latticed summer-houses and trellises, and blooming shrubs and flowers. These summer-houses, octagonal in shape, were covered with yellow jasmine and white French honeysuckle. An arched trellis over the “parlor porch” was covered with white star jasmine. At night, its delicate fragrance was in the room above, and a small child could reach across the window-sill and gather the little white stars.
Old-fashioned shrubs and flowers filled the front yard – cape jasmines, bridal wreath, crepe myrtles, deutzias, lemon verbena, mock orange, lantanas, four-o’clocks, flowering almonds, beautiful roses, purple iris, white lilies. These are all gone now with the exception of the crepe myrtle, But each spring the bulbs, iris, narcissus, jonquils repeat the beauty of long ago. The jonquils have spread over the yard so thickly, that their blooms are like drifts of yellow stars on the spring greenness.
The home was enjoyed by the Willises only about ten years. During the Civil War they moved their business to Houston, later establishing a wholesale store in Galveston, the leading wholesale house in Texas for fifteen or twenty years. Mrs. Willis died in 1863, and a year later, the youngest daughter died in this house.
The home was closed and left in charge of an old negro couple, Please and Lucinda, former slaves whom Mrs. Willis had inherited from her father. Their solidly built house under the west oak was standing until about twenty years ago. During the succeeding years the home was occupied during one or two summers by the R.S. Willis family, who came to the country to escape yellow fever.
The impoverishment caused by the war, must have been the reason that the place was not sold earlier. It was finally bought by I.C. Davis, a merchant of the town. The death of his friend and business partner, Mr. R.J. Palmer, had left Mr. Davis with the guardianship of his three children and larger home was needed. Their mother had died earlier.
The home was bought furnished just as it had been in 1854, and, for a long time it remained almost unchanged. The heavy Brussels carpet in the parlor, so thickly padded with hay underneath, that footfalls on it were soundless, retained its rich colors for many years. No wonder, for as unchangeable as the laws of the Medes and Persians was the household rule of those days, that sunlight must not shine on carpets. The east blinds were never opened in the mornings.
A lovely room was that old-time darkened parlor, with the soft gleam of brass cornices and gilt frames, the beautiful curtains, the color and fragrance of flower-filled vases. Even the basket of wax fruit on the mirror table seemed a beautiful and appropriate ornament. The charm was deepened when someone softly played and sang the old Southern songs with their burden of beauty and pathos - "Lorena”, of Stephen Foster’s lovely melodies. Such an inviting room was this to juvenile novel readers. One could curl up in the big armchair, out of sight, and let “St. Elmo” – that enchanting book – fall open where it would, and be lost in delight. Only by reading delicious snatches here and there could one feel, small casuist, that one was not disobeying by reading a novel.
Children of four families have successively made happiness in the old house, and all have deeply loved it. During the years, the Willis children and grandchildren have visited it from time to time. The last one of the Willis children, Mrs. George Sealy, died four years ago. Her beautiful and unusual given name, Magnolia, is perpetuated in the name of one of the great oil companies in which she was a large stockholder.
The Palmer children, who were so responsive to beautiful surroundings, lived here only a few years. They, too, are dead, but the daughter of the lovely girl, who cherished always such beautiful memories of the old home, comes to it sometimes as a shrine.
The two Davis children, with cousins during school terms, were the next children. The cousins’ happiest memories seem to have been of the swings in the oaks, and the games of “I-spy”, with the big red oak as the base. The Davis grandchildren were the last group of children to have swings in the oaks and happy games with neighbor children in the yard. On the death of their parents, they came to live with their grandmother and aunt.
As time went on, the old place very properly acquired a ghost, a quiet, unobtrusive ghost, who, all these years has been contented with only one appearance. As for that matter, the old house and the old town itself, to those who have lived here long, might well be peopled with memories and ghosts recalling past glories."
After so many years of use, Magnolia House has needed some serious TLC. Before the current owners occupied the house, they embarked upon a major structural renovation that included leveling the house (which required cutting the chimneys loose from the house as it was raised up to allow for structural supports to be placed underneath to lift the beams off of the soil), installing central heat and air conditioning, and updates to the plumbing and electrical systems.
The months of work and all of the waiting were worth it. Magnolia House is once again the splendid beauty that she was meant to be and has a foundation upon which at least another 100 years of history can be built.