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Willis Joshua Bailey

Politician, governor. Republican. Born: October 12, 1854, Mount Carroll, Illinois. Died:  May 19, 1932, Mission Hills, Kansas. Served in U.S. House of Representatives: March 4, 1899, to March 3, 1901. Served as 16th Governor of Kansas: January 12, 1903, to January 9, 1905.

Willis Bailey

Willis Joshua Bailey was born in Mount Carroll, Illinois, on October 12, 1854, in Mount Carroll, Illinois, to Monroe and Nancy J. (Melendy) Bailey. His father was a farmer, banker, and real estate promoter. He grew up with two brothers and one sister. The Bailey family came from New Englanders who were Whigs and Republicans. Willis was raised in Carroll County attending common schools and Mount Carroll High School. He later attended the University of Illinois at Urbana graduating in 1879 with courses in science and literature; in 1904 the university gave him an honorary bachelor of laws degree.

After completing college Bailey moved to Nemaha County, Kansas, with his father where he pursued farming and ranching. He later became a spokesperson for agricultural interests, and promoted organic crops in Kansas. With his father he platted the town of Baileyville and built a bank, where he later served as president. Bailey entered Kansas politics in 1889 when he served a two-year term in the Kansas House of Representatives. He was also the president of the Republican State League. From 1885 through 1899 he served on the state board of agriculture. On  March 4, 1899, Bailey was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives as a congressman at large; he served a two-year term.

In 1902, after a long and active journey in Kansas Republican affairs, Bailey was nominated for governor by the Republican state convention. He was elected the 16th governor of Kansas over the Democratic candidate, William Henry Craddock, who was also endorsed by the People’s Party, by 159,242 votes to 117,148. He assumed office in January 1903.

Governor Bailey’s first order of state business was to secure funds for a Kansas state display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. He also ensured that enough state money was raised to finally complete the last bit of construction on the state capitol. The governor initiated changes to a few state agencies to better reflect a stable state government: an increased workload mandated that railroad commissioners, and the office of the state printer, become elective positions. A new law, enforcement of which proved troublesome, was enacted that banned gambling machinery and devices.

A short time after Bailey took office he was dealt with the state's worst flood since 1844. The great flood of 1903 made headline news across the country. The flood affected the Missouri, Kansas, and lower Republican River Basins as far west as Ellsworth, Kansas. Torrential rains fell in northeast and north central Kansas reaching more than 17 inches in Salina by late May, and by May 31, 1903, the flood stage on the Kansas River reached its maximum height of 27.9 feet. The flood of 1903 created such a pandemonium that Governor Bailey convened a special session of the legislature to provide statewide relief to those who lost their homes and possessions. It took several years for the people who suffered from this carnage to recover and resume a state of normalcy. 

Bailey was the second governor, S. J. Crawford being the first, to marry while in office. He married Ida B. Weed on June 9, 1903.

Governor Bailey led the state in a time of increasing reform, yet his laissez-faire political philosophy was that he felt the fewer government programs that intervened in people’s lives, the better the people were left to find their own devices. But in contrast, the first time ever in Kansas’ history, he enforced a policy of tuition that was collected at state colleges and universities during his governorship. 

As agricultural reform, Governor Bailey approved sugar beet compensations in 1903 so that growers would get the full amount of compensation owed them for the season’s price cuts. These compensation acts would become more common throughout the farm belt communities. Bailey rightfully earned a prominent status with stock raisers and farmers in Kansas. Perhaps his greatest ambition was to perfect and raise the standards of agriculture in the vast soils of Kansas; he was also a huge fan of F. D. Coburn, then secretary of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, who was also a profound advocate of expanding modern day agriculture. Governor Bailey’s farming interest also led him to further expand land ownership in Colorado and New Mexico Territory.

In 1907, two years after leaving office, Bailey moved to Atchison to reengage in the banking business. In 1914 he began serving as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Beginning in 1922, he served as its governor until his death in 1932.

He died at the age of 77 in Mission Hills, Kansas, on May 19, 1932. He is buried at Mount Vernon Cemetery in Atchison.

Entry: Bailey, Willis Joshua

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: September 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.