Long before Willis gained attention, his father, Duran, a native of Peru, New York, had become a North Country fixture, operating a peddler’s cart in the post-Civil War years. From the shores of Lake Champlain to the Paul Smith’s area, he supplied homes and farms with the daily needs of life, an important function in those early days when stores visited many of their customers.
Duran was somewhat of a showman, adding to his popularity. His arrival at large hotels like Smith’s, or the Stevens House at Lake Placid, was greeted by requests for his famous team of gray horses to perform. Wells had taught them several tricks (playing ball, standing on their hind legs, etc.). Guests loved it, and it was a great advertising gimmick to boot.
Success as a peddler led to Duran settling down and operating a store in Lake Placid in the late 1870s. The business flourished, but the onset of rheumatism eventually left him crippled and unable to work, forcing him to retire by the age of 50.
Among Duran’s three sons was Willis, the youngest, born in 1889. At the age of 21, Willis was elected North Elba town clerk, a position he held for seven years. Having worked in village stores for many years, he struck out on his own in 1916, establishing a general store at the corner of Mill Hill and Main Street in Lake Placid. A year later, he left the town clerk position and won election as North Elba’s town supervisor. Two years after that, in 1919, he married Gertrude North. Together they operated the very popular store and involved themselves in many community activities.
In public life, Willis was an impressive leader for three decades, and was deeply involved in two of the most important events in the town’s history—building of the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, and the 1932 Winter Olympics.
In 1927, he was named first chairman of the executive committee of the Whiteface Memorial Association, a group tasked with convincing the state to build a road to the mountain’s summit. (The following year he was elected first vice-president of the Adirondack Automobile Club.)
In 1929, he was vice-president and one of seven original members of the Third Olympic Games Committee, a group that later expanded to 11 members. As chairman of the finance committee, Wells obtained pledges totaling $50,000 (about $670,000 in 2014) to satisfy the International Olympic Committee’s requirement for proof that North Elba was a serious and capable host. This was done in short order, after which Wells was involved in overseeing construction of various Olympic venues.
As town supervisor, he also oversaw the hosting of innumerable high-profile events: major summer and winter skating competitions, AAU swimming championships, the Kate Smith Amateur Golf Tournament, and more.
He served as president of the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the Essex County National Defense Committee during WWII, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors for eight years, vice-president of the New York State Association of Towns, and was master of ceremonies for an untold number of events.
While those are the highlights of his professional and public life, many people of Lake Placid knew him for two things: the man with the store that had everything, and the host of a much-anticipated Christmas party each holiday season.
In the early years, Wells’ store was a typical Five-and-Ten Cent operation. But to compete with larger stores, they diversified in unusual ways, and for most of their 15 years in business, Wells’ slogan was, “Everything from a Toothpick to a Tractor.”
And they meant it. As reported in the Lake Placid News in 1931, customers could buy “a toothpick, a tractor, an automobile, a yard of gingham, an ice cream soda, or a suit of clothes.”
The same newspaper lamented the community’s loss when Wells decided to sell the business. “The store was more than a store. It was a Lake Placid institution, dominated throughout all these years by the kindly personality and keen business insight of the proprietor and his wife, she who labored with her husband early and late to make the business a success.”
While the business was sold and continued operating under new proprietors, Willis and his wife retained ownership of the building and continued living in their home, a large apartment above the store. And one local institution that began in Wells’ store remained in place for more than a quarter-century—the annual Christmas party for children.
In the first year it was held, there were just four attendees. From that inauspicious beginning, it grew each year. Soon more than a hundred children were lined up to see Santa.
He and his wife were childless, and in 1923, Willis was involved in a terrible accident. During a blinding snowstorm, his car struck and killed an eight-year-old girl in Upper Jay. While coasting (sledding), she had slid into the car’s path. He carried the child to her home, but she died almost immediately.
One can only speculate on how the awful accident or the absence of children in the Wells home might have affected them, but at any rate, the parties they had begun years earlier continued, playing to large crowds of children each holiday season.
In early 1932, Mrs. Wells died, but ten months later, Willis hosted 200 children for Christmas. To preserve order, a policeman guided 20 at a time upstairs, where they received gifts of toys and candies.
After his wife Gertrude’s death, Willis shared the load with his mother, Frankie, in planning the parties, along with the help of many others. During the years of the Great Depression, attendance climbed to more than 400.
In 1940, nearly 500 children funneled through the Wells residence, receiving 6000 gifts ranging from toys to clothes, snacks, candy, fruit, clothing, and games, presented in gift bags handed out by ten helpers – with Santa on hand, of course. As happened each year, police were present to assist the orderly entrance and exit of attendees and to ensure all were safe from any traffic mishaps.
In 1941, the Wells Christmas party marked its silver anniversary, again providing gifts for between 400 and 500 children. Willis’ mother died in early 1942, but he carried on with the help of others, holding parties through 1943.
In 1946, Wells was named to the US Olympic Committee for the London games of 1948. In 1947, Willis lost the Republican primary, ending his record run of 30 consecutive years as North Elba Town Supervisor. Eighteen months later, in early May 1949, he passed away at the age of 59.
Willis Wells’ life of paid public service was truly remarkable, and his legacy of charity, particularly through the wonderful parties that gave so much to those who had so little, is both humbling and uplifting. Giving selflessly to others, and to thousands of children, says something about a person.
In 2006, he was voted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame. In both categories—professional and civic – he certainly had the credentials.
Photo: Willis Wells in the Lake Placid Hall of Fame