The Story of Legendary Folk Hero Willis Ray "Willie" Willey

Updated on February 19, 2018
Casey White profile image

Dorothy McKenney is a former newspaper reporter turned researcher. Her husband, Mike, is a professional landscape/nature photographer.

For Willie Willey Clothing Was Optional

In 1951, Willis Ray (Willie) Willey told a writer for the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin that he had not "worn a pair of shoes or clothing, other than these shorts, since 1918 - too much trouble and bother. Besides, clothes ain't healthful."
In 1951, Willis Ray (Willie) Willey told a writer for the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin that he had not "worn a pair of shoes or clothing, other than these shorts, since 1918 - too much trouble and bother. Besides, clothes ain't healthful." | Source

A Fascinating Individual

To call Willis Ray (Willie) Willey unique would be the understatement of the century. The mold of this legendary folk hero was broken, buried and probably put in a time capsule, not to be opened for thousands of years. After learning about Willey, many words came to mind - all synonyms of fascinating. The stories of him have been interesting, enchanting, captivating and thrilling. He was definitely one of a kind and had many nicknames, including Wild Willie, Nature Boy, Wild Man and some people even referred to him as Tarzan.

Willey was born in Iowa in 1884, but this "pale, sickly young man" (according to Nostalgia Magazine) yearned for a life in nature. This yearning led him when he was in his early twenties to Washington State, where he was well-known and admired until his death in 1956.

Willey tried wheat farming in the Spokane area of Washington state for several years before giving up and returning to nature. In this article, we've attempted to show you just how he accomplished that brave transition.

Note: Mr. Willey was born a twin; his twin was Willard Roy Willey, who is believed to have died in 1935 in Iowa. He also had several other siblings.

A Unique Man With His Unique Vehicle

This is a postcard and the vehicle pictured was equipped with a Ford Model T engine, a Chevrolet transmission, Ford Model A front axle, an Oakland radiator and a Studebaker rear axle.  Willie Willey always said that the police were his main problem.
This is a postcard and the vehicle pictured was equipped with a Ford Model T engine, a Chevrolet transmission, Ford Model A front axle, an Oakland radiator and a Studebaker rear axle. Willie Willey always said that the police were his main problem.

Willey's Travels Across the United States

Willey's travels were financed by selling bottles he found along the way and selling postcards of photos of himself. He also gathered up scrap metal from dumps and bought and sold second-hand furniture or knick-knacks. Unfortunately, many of the cities he passed through didn't greet him with open arms or offer him keys to the city. This is a list of some of his travels:

  • Upon the death of his mother in 1921 in Iowa, Willey traveled back there to attend her funeral. Read below about how he lost his land and ended up in a real-life version of a family feud.
  • In 1933, this mountain man traveled to the World's Fair in Chicago. He is said to have traveled in a 1904 Reo encountering police in every city and was arrested and jailed a number of times, apparently because of the way he dressed.
  • In 1940, he went to San Francisco, but our research failed to turn up any evidence on his mode of transportation at the time.
  • In 1946, Willey left the Spokane area for a few years after turning his truck into a camper. With him were a coyote, a bull snake, two dogs, five skunks, six white rats, and twelve guinea pigs. By the time he returned in 1951, he had added more animals to that entourage and they all lived in that camper together.

Note: When Willey wasn't traveling, he earned money doing odd jobs around town, or salvaging twisted car parts and iron. He also worked a construction job (in shorts and a carpenter apron) at the Farragut Naval Training Station in Northern Idaho.

A mountain man tries to live with the country instead of against it.

— Author Louis L'Amour

Traveling to the World's Fair in 1933

This is a photograph of Willis Ray (Willie) Willey in the 1904 Reo that he drove to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933, encountering police all along the way and arrested many times.
This is a photograph of Willis Ray (Willie) Willey in the 1904 Reo that he drove to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933, encountering police all along the way and arrested many times.

Willie's Land

In 1920, Willey purchased a forty acre plot of land just east of Hillyard, which was to be his permanent home and sanctuary for the animals he loved and cared for. His ownership of that land was brief and at some point in time, he lost that land after a feud with a family member, his nephew A. E. Murphy, with whom he entrusted the care of his animals while he was away at his mother's funeral in Iowa in 1921.

Apparently, his nephew sued him for $141.70 in some type of dispute over the property, but Willey refused to pay. His land was ultimately sold in a sheriff's auction, but he refused to leave the land and was arrested several times because of complaints from the new owner. Even in resulting court appearances, Willey only wore his trademark khaki shorts and nothing else.

"I haven't had a haircut or shave since 1933.

— Willis Ray Willey in 1951

Willie's Clothing

Once he got to Washington state and his body became more acclimated to the colder weather, Willey wore only a pair of shorts - winter, spring, summer, and fall - although in the summer he would add a green visor to his attire. In the winter, he often was seen wearing a pair of heavy galoshes. His long, bushy beard must have been enough to keep him warm in the winter and maybe he thought if his animals couldn't wear clothes, he wouldn't either.

According to an Associated Press newspaper article in the Ottawa (Canada) Evening Citizen in 1951, his body became so accustomed to "life in the raw" that he was no more bothered by weather than any other unclothed animal.

Willey Did Some Traveling

Click thumbnail to view full-size
In this 1933 photo, Willis Ray "Willie" Willey is wearing a pair of animal skin shorts he made - in place of his usual khaki shorts.A 1940 photo of Willey at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.  Shown with him are his pets - a possum, turtle, coyote and a dog.Willey - gassing up his unusual mode of travel.
In this 1933 photo, Willis Ray "Willie" Willey is wearing a pair of animal skin shorts he made - in place of his usual khaki shorts.
In this 1933 photo, Willis Ray "Willie" Willey is wearing a pair of animal skin shorts he made - in place of his usual khaki shorts. | Source
A 1940 photo of Willey at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.  Shown with him are his pets - a possum, turtle, coyote and a dog.
A 1940 photo of Willey at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Shown with him are his pets - a possum, turtle, coyote and a dog. | Source
Willey - gassing up his unusual mode of travel.
Willey - gassing up his unusual mode of travel. | Source

Willie Willey's Health

Willey was known to go polar bear swimming and ice skating on Liberty Lake outside of Spokane. He always attributed his excellent health to his lack of clothing. Although he was very sickly when he was younger, according to an article in Nostalgia Magazine, his health improved dramatically after he moved to Washington state and began wearing less clothing.

About 400 People Attended the Funeral of Willie Willey

Willis Ray "Willie" Willey was killed in an automobile accident in Spokane in 1956.  He was given one of the better plots in Fairmount Cemetery, and Washington Monumental company donated the stone. He was admired by many people.
Willis Ray "Willie" Willey was killed in an automobile accident in Spokane in 1956. He was given one of the better plots in Fairmount Cemetery, and Washington Monumental company donated the stone. He was admired by many people. | Source

His Horde of Animals

After Mr. Willey's death in 1956, several local Spokane organizations were kind enough to continue caring for his horde of animals, which (over the years) included dogs, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, raccoons, parrots, shrews, coyotes, skunks, turtles and even a monkey, although it's uncertain which ones he had at the time of his death.

A Book About Willis Ray (Willie) Willey

References

  1. Yates, Keith (1977), The Life of Willie Willey - Nature Boy, Traveler, Ambassador of Good Will. Lawton Printing
  2. Clark, Doug (1991). Spokane Chronicle Newspaper. Willie Willey is Surely Laughing At Spokane Now. February 12, 1991
  3. Hansen, Dan (1995). Spokesman-Review Newspaper (Spokane, WA). City Honors Clothing-Optional Folk Hero Willie Willey. January 12, 1995.
  4. http://iagenweb.org/ringgold/biographical/files/bio-willeywillie.html. Retrieved 02/19/2018.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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