Randy Willis is an American novelist, biographer, and music publisher.
He is the author of Twice a Slave, Three Winds Blowing, Louisiana Wind, Beckoning Candle, The Apostle to the Opelousas, The Story of Joseph Willis, and many magazine and newspaper articles.
Randy Willis…novels about adventure, family, faith, and the character of a man that touched generations.
Coming soon: A series of Children’s Storybooks beginning with Ole Sally Swims the Mighty Mississippi.
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“Jimbo ignored them all, except to say, ‘She’s not crazy, just afraid.’
“Didn’t take long for him to get a saddle on her. He climbed on her real slow like and rode with a new found confidence. She seemed to trust him.
“Suddenly someone cracked a bullwhip and yelled, ‘Ride ‘em, cowboy.’
“She must have jumped ten feet. And, as everyone hooped and hollered she reared up falling over backward on top of Jimbo. The horse got up but not the boy. He just lay there in the dry dusty dirt. I was the first one that got to him and he sure didn’t look good. He tried to talk, so I bent down close to his mouth to hear his words.
“’Please get my Book, the one that boss Jake gave me.’
“First I thought I hadn’t heard him right, but he said it real clear again.
“’Please get me my Bible.’
“I sent one of the others to fetch it from his saddlebags. I tried to make him comfortable, but there wasn’t much I could do. Wondered how we’d explain all this to boss man Jake. When the Book arrived I show it to him. ‘Here, Jimbo, here’s your Bible.’”
“’Lay it on my chest and open it to John 3:16, please. Put my finger on those words.
“He spoke all raspy like.
“’Please, do it, please!’
“I found that verse and lifted his hand. He cried in pain cause his arm was broken. I placed his finger on the verse.”
“’Tell boss Jake I made that decision just like he told me I should.’
“With that he closed his eyes and was gone.” The barber had tears in his eyes as he ended the story.
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I paused a minute, then said, “Boys, I made three decisions after I heard the barber’s story. The first was to name the creek we now live on Barber Creek. The second was to have you boys bury me one day with my Bible opened on my chest with my finger placed on John 3:16. And the third was to give every cowboy that works with us a copy of the good Lord’s Word. Your copies are in the chuck wagon. Rooster will show you where.”
Jeremiah and Jacob seemed to be moved the most.
Jeremiah spoke first, “Mr. Willis, our sister Mary told us about that Carpenter. Is He for real?”
“Boys, He’s as real as the skin on my bones.”
“What does that verse say Mr. Willis?”
“It says that whosoever puts his trust in Jesus will have everlasting life.”
“What does whosoever mean? Who’s that?”
“I reckon, Jeremiah, that’s you and me and every cowboy and cowgirl. Even the mavericks, the culls, and the undesirables. God swings a mighty big loop. But, there’s many a cowboy that doesn’t want His brand.”
There was a peace in the camp as an unseasonable cool breeze blew in.
Then Jeremiah said, “I want His brand.”
Jacob added, “Me, too.”
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This horse reminds me of Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveler.
After resigning from the U.S. Army, in 1861, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s 200-acre Arlington estate, where he had married his wife Mary, raised seven children, and lived for over 30 years, was occupied by Union troops.
The government seized the property in 1864. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs recommended it as the location of a new military cemetery to be named Arlington National Cemetery. To ensure the house would forever be uninhabitable for the Lees, Meigs directed graves to be placed as close to the mansion as possible, and in 1866 he ordered the remains of 2,111 unknown Civil War soldiers killed on battlefields near Washington, D.C., to be placed inside a vault in the Lees’ rose garden.
General Lee would never return. Most men would have been bitter, but not General Lee.
Attempts to embroil Robert E. Lee in politics failed, though The New York Herald endorsed him for President in 1868 on the grounds that he was a much better man in every way than U.S. Grant. Lee refused.
After the Civil War, General Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal artillery fire. She looked to General Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss.
After a brief silence, General Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”
Perhaps we all need to cut down a few trees today and forget them…?
~ Randy Willis
Christmas Day ✯ December 25, 1852 ✯ Forest Hill, Louisiana
Great-Grandpa Joseph Willis relived much of his life in Louisiana on the wagon trip in October of 1852 from Evergreen to Babb’s Bridge. He poured out his heart to us, and I discovered a joy in writin’ and keepin’ an account of all his stories.
Just when it seemed that no day in our family would ever top the 1845 Willis Feast of Thanksgiv…ing…it did. It all begin the first time ever I saw a white Christmas, December 25, 1852, in Babb’s Bridge, and the entire family was there. Each family member brought a decoration for our tree. The cedar was so big that we had to cut it down three times just to get it inside the door. There were strings of popcorn, wooden figures, sugared fruit, paper dolls cut out by the girls, gingerbread, and somebody even brought a bird’s nest. We had ornaments that had meanings, too, like a pine tree, which symbolized eternity, pinecones that meant warmth, and a teapot that signified hospitality, which has always been taught by our family. There were candy canes with the Good Shepherd’s crook, with white stripes for the purity of Jesus and his virgin birth and the bold red stripes for Christ’s shed blood. At the top of the tree was the star of Bethlehem made from a quilt. And, the Christmas stockin’s stuffed with nuts, candy, and fruit hung on every available nail.
I’ll never forget the looks on my cousins’, brothers’, and sisters’ faces. Dolls, books, tablets, pencils, wooden soldiers, and even a rockin’ horse were unwrapped that happy morn. I got a new writin’ tablet that I started using to write this.
Christmas Day started with a few flurries, and everyone ran out to see the snow. Mother taught us to make something I’d never eaten before—ice cream. She showed us how to add milk, cream, butter, and eggs with the snow in a pewter pot. She had read where President Thomas Jefferson had even made ice cream with split vanilla beans. Imagine that! Our traditional hot spiced cider warmed us from the cold. The smell of roasting chestnuts in Mama’s cast-iron skillet in the fireplace brought back precious memories of Christmas past.
As the flakes began to fall steadily, more guests arrived, including Mr. Cormier and Miss Adelaide. She was with child, due in a few months. Mr. Cormier told Great-Grandpa, “If the baby is a boy, we are gonna name him Joseph.” Great-Grandpa’s face shone with an all-knowin’ peace. You could hear the excitement in their voices as Mr. and Mrs. Cormier brushed the snow off.
Mr. Malachi Perkins, Miss Eliza, Randall, and Emily came in together. Mr. Perkins went right up to Great-Grandpa and gave him a hug, sayin’, “Pastor, we consider ourselves engaged, but as you know by Louisiana law, we can’t get married. We’ve fallen in love, and if it was legal, we’d be hitched already.” He hesitated, then went on, “We so want to do what’s right in the eyes of the Lord. I remember ya tellin’ me how your mama and daddy had a clandestine weddin’. I don’t want to bother ya on this special day, but would ya mind thinkin’ ‘bout it in a few days and lettin’ us know if ya’d perform our weddin’ ceremony?”
Great-Grandpa took all of two seconds, grinned, and said, “Ain’t gotta think about it, Malachi. I’d be honored…if ya don’t mind if I do the ceremony sittin’ down. I’m a half-step slower than I used to be.” Everybody laughed.
“Ya know, Pastor, ya could get in trouble for doin’ it!”
“Yes, I know, but I’m ninety-four, and my race here is almost run. What are they gonna do, shoot me? They already tried that, when I was only knee-high to a grasshopper.”
The entire room seemed to be filled with a sweet joy. We all cheered and clapped. Randall and Emily looked the happiest. Great-Grandpa motioned for me to come over and whispered in a voice real low, “Quite a few folks are named after me now. If you ever have a son, Dan, you should name him Randall, after Eliza’s son. You can even nickname ‘im Randy, if you so like. That way, our descendants will remember that miracle and share it with their children.”
We watched the storm bringin’ heavier snow, which seemed to be driven by a blue norther as our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Robert Graham arrived. And yes, Julia Ann was with ‘em. Great-Grandfather asked to be carried to the barn to talk to his aged four-legged friend, Ole Sally. He told her he had a gift for her—a mule blanket that all the Willis women had made. They had made a matchin’ blanket for him, too.
I listened to ‘im sweet-talk ‘er in ‘er ear. He thanked ‘er for being a good friend and told ‘er that he could never have done it without ‘er. As Ole Sally leaned over the stall gate, Great-Grandpa kissed ‘er on the nose. She backed ‘er ears, and he laughed, sayin’, “Aww, you know you like it.”
We carried him back to the house, and then I asked him to share his annual Christmas story once again. Everyone gathered ‘round the fireplace. He looked like he was doin’ what he loved best.
The wind was blowing the snow so hard we didn’t hear Mr. Ford arrive with Mr. and Mrs. Peter Tanner, the brother and sister-in-law of his late wife. Mr. Ford rushed through the door with a great big smile, sayin’, “Looks like Solomon Northup will be freed on January 3rd. He’s gonna be a free man!” Again, everyone clapped and cheered.
Great-Grandpa’s heart was full of joy. Mine, too! He beamed as he said, “I don’t see how a Christmas could get any better than this.”
He’d started to tell the Christmas story when there was a knock at the door. I jumped up to answer the door. There stood a snow-covered, half-frozen woman in a green hooded cape. Her hair was all wet and matted. All of a sudden, I recognized her—and so did everyone else. There were a few gasps and then lots of hugs. Great-Grandpa couldn’t see very well, as his eyes were dimmed by age. He asked, “Who’s that? Who’s here?”
She put her finger up to her lips to keep everyone silent. No one said a word as she went over to Great-Grandpa, hugged him, and said, “Merry Christmas, Pastor Joseph Willis. I love you with all my heart.”
His eyes glistened as he pulled her to him and said, “I love you even more, Miss Elvy Willis. Welcome home! I’ve saved a place beside me for ya. You’re just in time to hear my favorite Christmas story again.
“He was born in a little-known village. He was brought up in another community that people said nothing good would ever come out of. He worked with his hands in a carpenter shop until he was thirty, and then for three years, he traveled as a country preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never commanded an army. He never owned a home. He never went to college. He never traveled more than a couple hundred miles from the place where he was born.
He was rejected by the religious folk of that day. While he was still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. One friend denied him. Another betrayed him. Many even hated him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial and was then nailed to a notorious prisoner named Barabbas’ cross between two thieves. His executors gambled for his only possession—his coat.
“Most of his friends had abandoned him by then. When he died, he was laid in a borrowed grave. Then, on the next Sunday mornin’, he rose from the dead. As we look back across eighteen hundred years and examine the evidence and sum up his influence, we must conclude that all the armies that ever marched, all the ships that ever sailed, all the governments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, and all the presidents that ever led combined have not had the influence on mankind that this one Country Preacher has had!”
Not a sound was heard ‘til Great-Grandpa said, “Merry Christmas, everyone!
I got a stirrin’ in my heart and started singin’, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Great-Grandpa and Miss Elvy joined in: “Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room….” Finally, everyone was singin’. “And Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!”
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The Birth of the Novels and the Play
And, the real-life connection between Joseph Willis, William Prince Ford, Solomon Northup, and James “Jim” Bowie.
As a child Randy Willis lived near Longleaf and Forest Hill, Louisiana. As a teenager, he would work cows with his family there on the open range, owned by lumber companies. Seven generations of his family have lived there, beginning with his 4th great-grandfather—Joseph Willis. He would often ride his horse through his family’s neighboring property, which was once William Prince Ford’s Wallfield Plantation, not realizing the significance of his ancestor’s connection to Solomon Northup and William Prince Ford.
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After writing the biography The Apostle to the Opelousas, Randy Willis got the idea for his novels Twice a Slave and Three Winds Blowing and the play Twice a Slave from his friend and fellow historian Dr. Sue Eakin. She contacted him after reading an article that mentioned he had obtained the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes. The minutes had much information on two of its founders: Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford.
Ford had bought the slave Solomon Northup on June 23, 1841, in New Orleans. He immediately brought him to his Wallfield Plantation. Just forty-six days later, Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford founded Spring Hill Baptist Church, on August 8, 1841. Ford’s slaves attended the church too, which was the custom in pre-Civil War Louisiana.
The plantation was located on Hurricane Creek, a 1/4 mile east of present-day Forest Hill, Louisiana. It was located on the crest of a hill, on the Texas Road that ran along side a ridge. Northup called this area, in his book Twelve Years a Slave, “The Great Piney Woods.” Ford was also the headmaster of Spring Creek Academy located near his plantation and Spring Hill Baptist Church. It was there, in 1841, that Joseph Willis would live and entrust his diary to his protégé William Prince Ford, according to historian W.E. Paxton.
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Ford was not a Baptist preacher when he purchased Solomon Northup and the slave Eliza, a.k.a. Dradey, in 1841, as many books, articles, blogs, and the movie 12 Years a Slave have portrayed.
The first part of the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes are written in Ford’s own handwriting since he was the first church secretary and also the first church clerk. The minutes reveal that on July 7, 1842, Ford was elected deacon. On December 11, 1842, Ford became the church treasurer, too. It was during the winter of 1842 that Ford sold a 60% share of Northup to John M. Tibeats. Ford’s remaining 40% was later conveyed to Edwin Epps, on April 9, 1843.
It was not until February 10, 1844, that Ford was ordained as a Baptist preacher. A year later, on April 12, 1845, Ford was excommunicated for “communing with the Campbellite Church at Cheneyville.” But, Ford’s later writings reveal that he remained close friends with his neighbor and mentor Joseph Willis.
Dr. Eakin asked Randy if he would help her with her research on William Prince Ford. He also lectured in her history classes, at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, on the subject.
Dr. Eakin wrote Randy Willis on March 7, 1984, “We had a wonderful experience dramatizing Northup and I think there could be a musical play on Joseph Willis. It seems to me it gets the message across far more quickly than routine written material.” She added, “a fictional novel based upon Joseph Willis’ life would be more interesting to the general public than a biography and would reach a greater audience.”
Dr. Sue Eakin and 12 Years a Slave
Dr. Eakin is best known for documenting, annotating, and reviving interest in Solomon Northup’s 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave. She, at the age of eighteen, rediscovered a long-forgotten copy of Solomon Northup’s book, on the shelves of a bookstore, near the LSU campus, in Baton Rouge. The bookstore owner sold it to her for only 25 cents.
In 2013, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In his acceptance speech for the honor, director Steve McQueen thanked Dr. Eakin: “I’d like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book.”
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Joseph Willis and James “Jim” Bowie
Jim Bowie was a neighbor of Joseph Willis when they both lived near Bayou Chicot. Jim’s brother, Rezin Bowie, was a neighbor to Joseph’s eldest son Agerton Willis and eldest grandson, Daniel Hubbard Willis Sr., for four years (1824-1827) in the village of Bayou Boeuf. The name changed to Holmesville in 1834, and is located near present-day Eola. It was at Holmesville, on Bayou Boeuf, that Edwin Epps enslaved (1845-1853) Solomon Northup for the last eight years of his twelve year indenture. It was here that Joseph’s eldest son and Randy Willis’s 3rd great-grandfather Agerton Willis met and married Sophie Story.