J. McKenny Willis Jr., 100, Shore farmer

August 10, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

J. McKenny Willis Jr., a prominent Eastern Shore farmer and businessman died of heart failure Wednesday at the William Hill Manor Retirement Community in Easton. He was 100.

Mr. Willis founded one of the state's first poultry operations that had a hatchery and a processing plant. He was born and raised in Oxford, where his family had lived since 1778.

"He left school in the eighth grade after his father became ill. His father owned six farms, and he took over management of them," said son-in-law Richard G. Macgill, who lives in Ruxton.

In 1927, Mr. Willis became a fertilizer salesman for Armour & Co., which had its headquarters in Baltimore. He was later promoted to assistant sales manager and while continuing to work for the company, established J. McKenny Willis & Son in 1930 in Easton.

Mr. Willis' company sold wholesale and retail agricultural products, including fertilizer, manufactured by his employer that was shipped from Baltimore to Easton.

He resigned from Armour in 1940 to devote more time to his own company, which he expanded in a few years when he added a grain division that bought and shipped wheat, corn and barley grown by Eastern Shore farmers.

During the Depression, Mr. Willis did what other fertilizer companies refused to do: Aware of the desperate economic plight of Shore farmers, he provided them with all the fertilizer they needed on credit. Only after their crops were harvested and sold would he send a bill.

In the late 1940s, Mr. Willis moved into the area of growing broiler chickens.

"He built a hatchery, acquired a processing plant in Milford, Del., and developed an egg hatching program in North Carolina. Integration meant that the company had control over the broiler from the hatching egg stage through incubation to broiler production to processing," said a 1991 profile of Mr. Willis in The Delmarva Farmer.

"It also meant jobs for local residents, a demand for locally raised grains from farmers and a solid tax base of the local economy," the article said.

After merging his company with Burris Processing Co. in Milford, the firm processed and distributed its own brand of poultry throughout the Northeast. It merged again in 1963 with St. Michaels Milling Co., with the new company being called Bayshore Foods Inc.

Mr. Willis served as president of the new company until 1965, when he was named chairman of the board. He retired in 1968 after the company was acquired by Kane Miller Corp. of New York.

"He was a very fine individual, and no one alive did more for Talbot County. He's the man who made Talbot County what it is today," said Lloyd L. Beatty, former chief financial officer of Bayshore Foods Inc. and a certified public accountant.

"He was a very quiet man who didn't have a lot of education but plenty of common sense and business acumen," Mr. Beatty said.

"He also didn't believe in fanfare. When he went to Wye House to have dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, his wife said he had to wear a tuxedo, which he didn't want to do. As soon as possible, he quickly changed into a business suit," Mr. Beatty said.

Mr. Willis had also served as a board member and later was president of Easton National Bank, later acquired by Maryland National Bank. For 50 years, he served as a director, fund-raiser and donor for Easton Memorial Hospital. He also established the United Fund of Talbot County.

From 1941 to 1954, he was an adviser to the Talbot County commissioners. He was appointed to the seven-member commission by Gov. Preston Lane that studied and executed the building of the Bay Bridge that opened in 1951. He also was appointed to the Grotz Committee by Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin that studied state debt. Again under Gov. J. Millard Tawes, he was appointed to a committee that recommended a new salary scale for members of the state legislature, the comptroller and governor.

For years, until moving to the Easton retirement community in 1998, Mr. Willis lived at Cottingham Farm in Talbot County, where he bred cattle and sheep on its 650 acres.

He was married for 29 years to the former Macqueen Gibbs, who died in 1964.

In his typed obituary, Mr. Willis had written: "Please no service of any kind. I want to be cremated, ashes to be spread on top of the soil so that I may help trees grow and flowers bloom."

His family will comply with his wishes.

Mr. Willis is survived by his wife of 33 years, Sarah Grace Henry; three daughters, Ethel Dixon Macgill of Ruxton, and Sarah Macqueen Vermilye and Virginia McKenny Sappington, both of Easton; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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