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Willits History

Willits, California, known as the "Heart of Mendocino County ~ Gateway to the Redwoods," was incorporated in 1888. It was founded by Hiram Willits and was settled in the 1850's by pioneering ranchers.

Sam and Harry Baechtel drove a herd of cattle up from Marin County in search of permanent grazing land and found a valley that fulfilled their needs. They were the first non-Native American settlers in Willits.According to Sam Baechtel's notebook: "The valley has a large watershed and during our rainy seasons the water collects more rapidly than the outlet can carry it off; consequently, it forms a lake in its northern end which is usually all drained off by May." That's one version of how the valley was called the Little Lake Valley. Sam also mentioned that there were about 300 Native Americans who shared the valley. Eventually, the Baechtel's got along well with the Native Americans because a later generation remembered them working on the Baechtel's ranch, and an Indian sweat house being across the road from the Baechtel house. 

In 1860 William James built the first grist mill and, about the same time, the Blosser brothers built a water powered sawmill up Willits Creek. Lumber brought prosperity to the tiny settlement, with the first sawmill built in 1861. The town of Little Lake had sprung up on Baechtel land consisting of a store, meeting house, blacksmith shop and a saloon. In 1865 Kirk Brier built a store to the north on Hiram Willits' land, and the town of Willitsville grew around it.

The early settlers were self-sufficient and grew their own produce, raised their own meat, fruit and potatoes. And, what they didn't grow they purchased at the local mercantile store. By the end of the 1860's they were connected to the outside by a stage line.

In 1888, with the advent of the railroad, Willitsville incorporated with a population of 720 and called itself Willits. Lumbering had joined farming as a part of the local economy, and the tanbark industry flourished.  Northwestern Railroad reached Willits in 1901 followed by the California Western "Skunk Train" 10 years later. Northwestern Railroad completed the line to Eureka in 1914 making Willits the center of the line stretching from San Francisco to Eureka.

Willits is a small rural community located on U.S. Highway 101 approximately 140 miles north of San Francisco. A town rich in history with beautiful scenery, from rolling hills to picturesque ranches dotting the landscape. Willits is the eastern terminus of the world famous "Skunk Train" which thousands of travelers continue to enjoy and ride each year.  We are also home to the Mendocino County Museum. The museum has one of the finest collections of Pomo and Yuki Baskets in the world. The Roots of Motive Power Antique Steam Logging Equipment Display is an actual working exhibit of logging equipment used at the turn-of-the-century. Willits Frontier Days, our major annual 4th of July event, boasts of being the "Oldest Continuous Rodeo in the State of California," paying homage to our pioneering roots.

Willits, being centrally located in the heart of Mendocino County, offers visitors and residents alike the opportunity to enjoy many activities in and around our community and experience small town America at its best! We invite you and your family to make Willits your destination and see it for yourself!

The pioneering spirit that first founded Willits is still alive and well today! Willits, even though it is a small community, is made up of people and businesses that are mighty in perseverance and toughness. A diverse and individualistic lot, we have a deep sense of caring for one another and our community. This has been shown time and time again throughout the years. From the beginning, our citizens have put aside differences and worked together to make our community a better place to live, work and play. Pioneering ranchers and Native Americans living and working side by side; the whole town rallying together to help other communities in need; the raising of the Willits Arch (which stands today towering over Highway 101 as a symbol of our community's togetherness) all are examples of this "can do" community.

Willits is a great place to visit. A friendly town, surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in California that you will ever see, it offers you the central location to visit our wonderful and diverse county and region. Willits is a great place for business. Access to markets, low development fees (some 30% lower than in other areas), local government's willingness to work with and support business.

Willits is a great place to live. Small town values, friendly and caring people, low housing costs yet many amenities.