In July 1973, long-time Southeast Missourian reporter John Ramey -- then at the beginning of his career with the newspaper -- took to the hills of north Cape Girardeau County in pursuit of a story about Theresia Wills, a 91-year-old woman who lived in seclusion in a broken-down log house.
The story is a sad one, made even sadder by the fact that Wills passed away less than a day after the article appeared on the front page of the newspaper.
Published Saturday, July 7, 1973, in the Southeast Missourian:
Removed from the world around her, Mrs. Theresia Wills makes her home in total seclusion in north Cape Girardeau County, repeatedly refusing to leave the house in which she has resided for nearly 50 years. (Gordon McBride ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
BONDAGE TO HOME POSES PROBLEM
By JOHN H. RAMEY
Missourian staff writer
Nestled picturesquely in the rugged wooded hills of north Cape Girardeau County is a clearing that for nearly 50 years has served as the homestead for Mrs. Theresia Wills.
Somehow untouched by the rapid urbanization that is sweeping the county, Mrs. Wills' home place appears uniquely out of place in modern times.
Instead, it is a site that perhaps only, with the exception of Appalachia, vanished decades ago from the face of America. It is as if time stopped here over a century ago, and, although having left its inescapable mark of 91 years on Mrs. Wills, really never elapsed.
The one-room log structure inhabited by Mrs. Wills hardly appears habitable. The rotting timbers, dilapidated oak siding and rusting tin roof allow as much bad weather inside as there is out. There is no running water or electricity; the only heat comes from an ancient, potbelly stove.
But aside from these physical features, there is another feature of Mrs. Wills' life. This is her home and she refuses to leave, repeatedly rejecting requests of those who believe she would be better off somewhere else.
Mrs. Wills, it appears, has convinced herself she will never leave her home. For the past few years, she has spent a good deal of her time trying to convince others of the same thing.
The story of Mrs. Wills' fascinating, yet touching situation, began unfolding when Cape County Deputy Sheriff Marcell Pringle; Mrs. Wills' grandson, Robert Wills Jr.; a Missourian reporter and a photographer began the mile-long trek to her isolated shanty.
Following the drive from Jackson to a county road, it became necessary, after driving about a half mile down a practically impassable lane, to abandon the vehicle and begin on foot down a heavily weed-lined lane.
The old house
This hike began at a small gravel-bottomed creek, basically followed the creek bottom and ended, after crossing still another creek, in the clearing that gave clear view of the weather-beaten house amid a field of Queen Ann's Lace another half mile from the blacktop.
Mrs. Wills' grandson... accompanied the party in order to assure Mrs. Wills that we were there only to visit and not to take her away from her home.
Robert's method of awaking his grandmother was unusual, to say the least. Being hard of hearing, Mrs. Wills could not possibly hear a knock at the front door of her house, so Robert went to the single bare window in an attempt to awaken her and ask her to open the front door. After a minute or so, Mrs. Wills awakened to the sound of Robert's singing voice: "Time to get up, it's morning."
Mrs. Wills, however, would not get out of bed, the mattress of which contained no linens.
In hopes of talking with Mrs. Wills, we asked if there was any way we could convince her to come to the door and talk with us. Robert said he thought his father might be at his home, about 200 yards up the creek, and that his father could persuade her to open the door.
Robert led the party up the creek to Mrs. Wills' son's home, where we discovered another shanty dating back just as far as that of Mrs. Wills'.
Her son, whose name also is Robert Wills Jr., consented and led us back to his mother's home.
Wills' single-room shanty, built over a century ago, reflects its age. Her drinking water comes from a shallow well in the foreground. (Gordon McBride ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
It was learned by talking with Mr. Wills, 53, that he visits his mother occasionally, bringing her the only money she receives -- $85 monthly in old age assistance from the Cape County Welfare Office -- and a few government commodities.
On occasion, Mr. Wills stays in the house near that of his mother, both of which are situated on 40-acre tract Mr. Wills says he now owns. But there are extended periods of time when Mr. Wills is in Cape Girardeau. During these periods, Mrs. Wills sees no one, some times for weeks at a time.
After walking back to Mrs. Wills' home, her son spoke to her through the bare window and Mrs. Wills arose, proceeding to the front door.
The knocking sound of a broomstick that serves as her crutch could be heard rhythmically striking against the bare wood floor as she made her way to the front door.
We waited patiently for Mrs. Wills to appear and after about three minutes she opened the door. It was extremely difficult to communicate with her, however. She stated several times she could not understand the questions asked, but she consented to pictures and seemed happy we had visited her.
She also said several times during the short conversation that she does not want to leave her home, where she has resided since she and her husband, who died 25 years ago, moved into the house 47 years ago.
Mrs. Wills' drinking water comes from a shallow well just outside the house.
She said the only time she gets outside is to get water from the well or wood for her stove. She wears boots when outside. Otherwise, she makes her way around the house barefooted.
Deputy Pringle first discovered Mrs. Wills and her home lat winter when he was looking for her grandson. He and Sheriff Ivan E. McLain have both expressed concern over her living in seclusion at her age. Deputy Pringle believes she may be sick and needs the care of a doctor.
The sheriff's office, welfare office and her son have all tried to convince her to leave. "We would have to carry Mom out to get her away," Mr. Wills declared.
Mrs. Wills was carried away from her home on March 8, 1971, after breaking her ankle. Sheriff's officers and case workers of the welfare office rolled her in a wagon to a waiting car at the entrance of the lane leading to her house.
She returned to her house after a four-day stay in the hospital. The welfare office provided her with transportation to and from a doctor's office for the next month.
On April 7, 1971, Mrs. Wills was taken to State Hospital No. 4 at Farmington for further care. After recovering from the compound fracture, she was dismissed from the Farmington hospital on Dec. 15, 1971, and returned to her home.
The only method by which Mrs. Wills could be place into a nursing home or hospital, where she would receive proper care, would be upon demand of her son. Mr. Wills, however, has never forced the issue, although he reluctantly admits this would be best for his mother.
Unlike other cases were there are no surviving relatives, neither the welfare office nor the sheriff's office can initiate proceedings to require her to move. If she had no surviving relatives, or their whereabouts were unknown, either office could request that a doctor examine her so that the Probate Court could have her transferred for better care.
Mrs. Wills does not eat properly, which adds to her health problems, Deputy Pringle pointed out. With the exception of the few food commodities furnished by her son, she gets no other food. She seldom, if ever, is able to cook a meal on her wood burning stove. Since there is no electricity, she has no means of storing perishable items.
Mrs. Wills would not allow us to come inside her house. She preferred to talk with us from the inside.
Following the conversation and after Mrs. Wills shut the door, we crossed the creek and began walking back toward the car. We had gone not more than a couple hundred feet when once again we heard the knocking of the broomstick cane on the floor.
She was returning to her bed. She had watched us through the door until we were beyond the clearing and out of her sight. She wanted to be sure we were leaving and not planning to take her away.
Published Monday, July 9, 1973, in the Southeast Missourian:
At 91, Mrs. Theresia Wills was content with her self-made servitude to her secluded home, despite the opinions of others. She posed only briefly for this portrait before becoming restless over her visitors' presence. (Gordon McBride ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
SPENDS LAST DAYS IN ONLY HOME SHE WANTED
Mrs. Theresia Wills, whose self-made plight of seclusion was described in a Missourian story Saturday, died 20 hours after it appeared, having become ill that night in the home she would not leave. She was 91 years old.
Authorities said Mrs. Wills son, Robert Wills Jr., found his mother extremely ill in her timeworn dilapidated home on Jackson Route 3 about 10 Saturday night, apparently the victim of a stroke.
Upon realizing her serious condition, Mr. Wills, who visited his mother periodically and occasionally lived in a similar shanty about 200 yards away, walked the mile-long heavily grown-up path that leads to Route W and telephoned Cape County Ambulance Service.
An ambulance was dispatched, but it could not make the trip back into the woods and across two creeks to Mrs. Wills' one-room house. Instead, a pickup truck was obtained from a neighbor. It managed to get back to Mrs. Wills' house -- only because of the dry conditions -- and transport her to the waiting ambulance.
Mrs. Wills died at Southeast Missouri Hospital at 10:30 Sunday morning. She had been in failing health for many years.
For the past two years, Mrs. Wills had repeatedly refused requests of the county sheriff's office and welfare office to leave her home and be placed in a nursing home 0r hospital, where she could obtain the care she badly needed.
But she had lived there nearly 50 years -- 25 without her deceased husband, Robert Wills -- and was convinced she would spend the rest of her life at her home place, no matter how crude it may have appeared to others.
Service is to be at 2 Tuesday afternoon at Cracraft-Miller Funeral Home at Jackson with burial in New Bethel Cemetery near Neelys Landing.
Mrs. Wills was born at Neelys Landing, daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Frank Schraw. She and her husband resided for some time on Big Island below Commerce and moved to the 40-acre tract on which the two old homes are situated about 47 years ago.
Survivors, in addition to her son, Robert, is another son, Frank Wills, Colorado; sister, Mrs. Dora Russell, Grand Tower, Illinois; brother, Kelly Schraw, Cape Girardeau, and five grandchildren.
Friends may call at Cracraft-Miller Funeral Home.