Biographical / Historical
Willard Rouse Jillson was born on May 28, 1890, a son of Willard Rogers Jillson and Anna Delle Jillson. The Jillsons and their three sons and daughters lived in Syracuse, New York. W. R. Jillson was graduated from Syracuse High School in the summer of 1908 and in the fall of that year entered Syracuse University. During his undergraduate years he held various positions with the college newspaper, the Syracuse Orange, and served as editor-in-chief his senior year. While at Syracuse University he was one of ten founding members of the Pi Delta Epsilon fraternity. Correspondence with his fraternity brothers is often signed "fraternally yours." The collection contains photographs and other memorbilia of his fraternity's fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1959.
After receiving his B.S. degree in 1912, Jillson began work with various companies and agencies as a field and industrial geologist. In the middle of the decade, he did graduate work at the University of Washington (M.S., 1915), the University of Chicago, and Yale University. There are several letters from a fraternity brother encouraging him to complete his Ph.D. degree. This he never did, but he received honorary doctorates from Syracuse University (1921) and Berea College (1925).
Together with his brothers, Frederick and Edward, Jillson entered many speculative business ventures. They surveyed and invested in oil fields in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The collection contains extensive business correspondence from this period.
Both of Jillson's brothers served in the armed services during World War I. His brothers' military service allowed Jillson to be exempt. There is some correspondence among the brothers during the war years. Jillson's sister Ruth served in France (1918-1919) for ten months as a nurse's aid, but the collection contains no correspondence from her.
Jillson married Oriole Gormley, a native of Prestonsburg, Kentucky, on September 10, 1917. During the next two years they built a cozy "bungalow" in Prestonsburg. The Jillsons' children were Marie Gormley, Oriole Fredrica, Ann Elizabeth, and Willard Rogers.
Jillson was a dedicated supporter of the Republican Party in Kentucky. As a result of this association, he was appointed to the position of Deputy Commissioner of Geology and Kentucky State Geologist in 1919. The following year Jillson was appointed Director of the Sixth Kentucky Geological Survey. There is a series of correspondence about the maneuvering to acquire these jobs. There is also some correspondence concerning other patronage positions in Washington, D. C., during the 1920's.
In 1924 Jillson was appointed to two additional positions in state government--that of Curator of the State Museum and Chairman of the first Kentucky State Park Commission. During the 1920's he became interested in Kentucky history and in the years following wrote many books and articles on the subject. Many of his writings were published at his own expense. Other articles are found in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, of which he served in many capacities. Notes and manuscripts compiled for those publications are contained in the collection.
The 1931 Democratic victories in Kentucky resulted in the loss of Jillson's many patronage positions. Afterwards he worked for several companies as a geologist. Jillson invested money in numerous business ventures, especially in distilleries after the repeal of the nineteenth amendment. Many of the investments proved to be unsuccessful.
Jillson taught geology at the University of Kentucky (1918-1919). Later (1947-1951) he taught at Transylvania University. There is little material in his papers concerning his years in the teaching profession.
Willard Rouse Jillson has strong overtones of "Babbitt" about him. His correspondence with brothers, sisters, cousins, and children is frequently about money--the lack of it or how to get it. This series of correspondence illuminates aspects of business, daily life, and middle class attitudes in the United States during the 1910 to 1940 period. After 1940, correspondence becomes more impersonal and business oriented.
Resigning from the faculty of Transylvania University in 1951, Jillson devoted his time to the acquisition and development of gas and oil properties in Kentucky. In 1966 a severe heart attack curtailed many of his activities. He spent many hours doing research and lecturing. Jillson died on October 4, 1975, in Louisville, Kentucky.