Back When … Capt. Thomas Wesley Smith,
Tobacco King of Willis
Thomas Wesley Smith was born on July 13, 1829 in Logan County, Kentucky. In 1845, at the age of 16, Smith came to Texas and settled in the town of Montgomery, where he met and married Margaret Arnold. In 1851, he was elected sheriff of Montgomery County. Ten years later when the Civil War began, he joined the Confederate Army and served as a captain until the end of the war, when he came home to Montgomery and began his career in the mercantile business. In 1872, the railroad was constructed through the town of Willis east of Montgomery and north of Conroe. The railroad brought an influx of people and business to the town of Willis, and caused Smith to move his mercantile interests to this new location.
Willis was an agricultural and lumber town and by 1878 had the largest number of lumber and shingle manufacturing businesses in the state of Texas, as well as the newly developing tobacco industry.
Smith and his son Owen, along with many other farmers in the area, started farming tobacco. The farmers had found the climate and soil conditions in Montgomery County were most favorable for tobacco production, including the high-quality varieties such as Sumatra and a type from the Abajo district of Cuba. The demand was great for the high-quality tobacco, and easy access to the rail line meant this fine product could be shipped to the eastern markets. Being the remarkable businessman he was, Smith took advantage of the demand and founded the Willis Cigar Factory, which was the first brick cigar factory in Willis.
Demand for Willis’ cigars and tobacco was great. The farmers obtained prisoners from the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville for field labor. Fields of tobacco were everywhere. In 1891, more than 1,500 acres were planted with the Cuban variety “Vuelta Abago” alone. Tobacco grown near Willis won the first prize at the Colombian World’s Expo in Chicago in 1893 and won first prize at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900.
Willis and its thriving tobacco industry flourished under the merchandising abilities of Thomas and Owen Smith. By 1895, there were seven cigar manufacturing companies in town. Willis was the center of Texas tobacco, with 90 percent the state’s tobacco being grown within five miles of town.
After the Spanish American War, the business began to decline. When the tariff on Cuban tobacco was lifted, the tobacco business in Willis disappeared. Owen took over the business when his father died in 1901, at which time only 70 acres of tobacco were being raised in the area. The fields previously full of tobacco were now truck farms growing fruits and vegetables.
A Texas State Historical Marker marks the site of the Willis Cigar Factory on the corner of Waverly and Bell streets in Willis. The original factory building was abandoned in 1910, and was burned down by vandals in the 1930s.
For information on the commission and its efforts, visit montgomerycountyhistoricalcommission.com