Do You Remember The Wills Building?

The Wills Building at the southeast corner of Lee and Water, which now houses the Sapulpa Historical Museum, was built in 1910 by real estate mogul and entrepreneur, Thomas Wills.

Thomas Wills was considered to be one of the most prominent and influential men in Sapulpa during the Indian Territory days. Wills was born in Culpepper County, Virginia on March 20, 1824. During his youth, he worked on his father’s farm. It became evident early on in his life that he had a talent for the management and purchase of cattle. Wills subsequently engaged in the agricultural business on a large scale. While in Virginia, he managed a lumber and tanning business. In 1877 he went to Missouri to start a cattle business, then moved to Texas. He later bought large numbers of cattle and drove them to Indian territory, settling in Vinita in 1883. In 1895, Wills came to Sapulpa, Indian Territory, where he established a flour depot and a small grocery store.

Thomas Wills. circa 1912.

He stridently supported the growth and economic development of Sapulpa. He built the first bridge over Polecat Creek and paid for it himself. This benevolent act, along with agreeing to build a water line from Rock Creek, opened the way for the Santa Fe Railroad to be run through Sapulpa. He built several downtown buildings, including the store that housed Max Meyer’s Clothing, the building that housed Sheffel Furniture on North Main St. and of course, the building now housing the Sapulpa Historical Society. Thomas Wills passed away on February 7th, 1915.

In 1911, the building was considered by the Creek County Commissioners to be used as a courthouse and jail. The existing courthouse on west Dewey had been condemned and a new courthouse was urgently needed. The agreement was for $300 a month for a period of three years with the caveat that the owner would make need changes to the building for use by the County. The proposition was withdrawn when it was realized it would be impossible to put jail cells in the building.

Various businesses occupied the first floor in the early days of the building, such as a plumbing company, a photography studio, a publishing company, a produce company, a vulcanizing shop (a tire shop that recaps tires) a tailor shop, and a plethora of other enterprises. The second floor was occupied by the Lee Hotel from 1911 until 1921. For many years, the top floor was occupied by the Sapulpa Business College. Later, that floor would be rented for dances, balls, and other soirees.

On September 10, 1920, 200 women and girls met at the Sapulpa Public Library basement to organize the Y.W.C.A. and contracted the rental of the basement meeting room for $600 a year.

On January 14, the next year, Director John G. Ellinghausen proposed the idea of a building and a place for working girls to live. Director H.A. McCauley said that the Wills Building was up for sale for $18,000.

In April of 1921, $10,000 had been paid on the Wills Building. Various local civic clubs pledged furnishings for the rooms. By February of 1922, however, the Y.W.C.A. was in serious financial trouble. The purchase of the beautiful three-story Wills Building proved to be a strain on the finances of the fledgling organization. The revenue from the rents from the businesses on the first floor, as well as from other sources, were not enough to help fund the institution. At the time there was only one business occupying the first floor.

YWCA Booth, circa 1929.

The “Y” had to come up with $8,000-$9,000 immediately to keep the building. Fundraising efforts proved successful and the Y.W.C.A. operated in Sapulpa until the early 1980s.

From the 1950s to the late 1980s, many civic groups, such as the Lions Club, The Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and the Women’s Chamber of Commerce met in the building.

Before the Sapulpa Historical Society had a building for the museum, Historical Society members stored artifacts in their spare rooms, garages, and a storage building on Brown Street, by the late seventies, they rented the first two rooms in the building on East Lee, which was then the Y.W.C.A. The Y.W.C.A. only had two residents and the third room was used to serve lunch daily to local service organizations

First Baptist Church Bible study group stands outside the Wills Building. This photo was taken in the 1930s.

In 1982, The Y.W.C.A. closed and the Sapulpa Historical Society acquired the building. Since the Y.W.C.A. was a 501C(3), they were required to turn over their assets to another 501C(3). Since there was already a working relationship with the Y.W.C.A., they decided to donate the building to the Sapulpa Historical Society. This was quite fortuitous for the Sapulpa Historical Society.

Within a few short years, the building was transformed into a magnificent museum that is one of the best local history museums in the nation.

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Charles Betzler

Charles Betzler

Charles Betzler is a contributing writer for Sapulpa Times.