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A lucky break

On Nov. 5, 1867, Consider H. Willett married Lois A. Wilder of Ann Arbor, Mich. The Willetts relocated to Chicago, a city with an exploding population and a great need for experienced lawyers. There, Lois Willett gave birth to six daughters and two sons.

Willett served for several years as Cook County attorney in Illinois. During the Great Chicago Fire — Oct. 8, 1871 — his law office and library were gutted. However, this man had been held to the fire before. While the smoke was still clearing, he was organizing committees to rebuild the Windy City.

In March 1997, 11 years after finding the Willett ID tag — which I still have — I received a phone call from Edward H. Lane Jr. of Bedford County, Va. Mr. Lane’s father founded the renowned Lane Cedar Chest Co. in 1912. After reading one of my ads in a Civil War publication searching for “any information on Consider H. Willett,” Mr. Lane thought about a dining room suite he had purchased more than 40 years earlier. Pulling the solid cherry buffet away from the wall, he was surprised to read an inscription on the back: “Manufactured by The Consider H. Willett Furniture Company — Louisville, Kentucky.”

After Mr. Lane’s informative call, and with the use of a Kentucky phone book, I was able to contact Elizabeth “Dixie” Willett Welch and Lois Willett Ross, granddaughters of Capt. Willett living in Louisville.

Elizabeth Welch recalled going to Chicago as a young girl to visit her aunts. When her “Yankee” relatives — Capt. Willett’s daughters — met their niece from Kentucky, they jokingly dubbed her “Dixie.” The nickname stuck. The Lane connection produced extensive Willett family genealogy and two more unpublished images of the soldier-turned-lawyer.

The captain’s youngest son, Consider H. Willett Jr., left Chicago in 1907 to join forces with his older brother, William, already living in Kentucky. There the brothers went into partnership in the lumber business. Consider Jr. branched out on his own in 1934, opening Willett Furniture Co. in Louisville.

During World War II, the factory built bunk beds for the Army. At peak production, the company employed 230 workers while gaining national prominence as the largest manufacturer of solid maple and cherry furniture in the world. Consider Willett Jr., the proud son of a Civil War veteran, died in Louisville in 1944 at age 54. The company continued production for a period, but being plagued with financial problems, closed its doors for good in 1964.

True and firm

On Oct. 12, 1912, at age 72, Capt. Consider H. Willett fought his last battle. A small granite stone marks his grave beside a peaceful lake in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Lois Willett was placed by her husband’s side at Oak Woods on July 12, 1936.

At the battle at Fredericksburg — Dec. 13, 1862 — Willett described the action in a letter to a friend in New York: “Today I am on my knapsack for a seat, on the brick sidewalk on Main Street, Fredericksburg. The batteries are playing around us, and musketry occasionally throws in its voice to make the din of war complete. The boys of Company E crossed the Rappahannock on Saturday at 3 P.M. We were marched directly through town along or near the railroad.”

The correspondence from Fredericksburg ends by revealing the cruel reality of war, along with trust in a higher command: “As we neared the outskirts of town, a destructive fire poured upon us. Many of the 44th fell wounded and our Color Sergeant was killed. We are having a terrible battle here, but have high hopes in the Ruler of all things that we will ultimately succeed. I remain as true and firm in battle as I hope to be in the battle of life. Yours truly, C.H. Willett.”

Following the War Between the States, this hero of Gettysburg did remain as true in life as in battle. Now, through the recovery of a small silver badge lost more than 143 years ago in Maryland and a piece of antique cherry furniture from Kentucky, Willett’s distinguished story can be published and finally receive the recognition it so richly deserves.

Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and frequent contributor to this page.