Willits (formerly Little Lake and Willitsville) is a city in Mendocino County, Northern California. Willits is located twenty miles north-northwest of Ukiah, at an elevation of 1391 feet. The population is just shy of five thousand.
Willits stands at the approach to the county's extensive redwood forests as one travels Highway 101 from the south. An arch donated to the city by Reno, Nevada in 1995 stands in the center of town and displays Willits' slogans "Heart of Mendocino County" and "Gateway to the Redwoods." The Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California is headquartered in Willits.
Willits was originally called Willitsville. Later, when the post office opened in 1861, it was called Little Lake. The name changed to Willits in 1874 and the town was incorporated in 1888.
Willits has a colorful history by any of its names.
Little Lake was the scene of a legendary family feud between the Frost and Coates families. The former supported the South during the war, and the latter supported the Union. Both were passionate in their beliefs. On Election Day in October 1867, the long-running feud came to a head. A brawl turned into a shootout in front of Baechtel’s store, leaving five men dead on the street and three others wounded.
Later, the Triple Masonic lynching of 1879 played out here when three young men were charged with petty larceny, having been accused of stealing a saddle and harness. Elijah Frost was aged 29, and his compadres Abijah "Bige" Gibson and Tom McCracken were aged 19. The three, it was later reported, had for years been involved in stealing, robbing smokehouses, drinking and reckless discharging of their firearms. In August they were arrested by a constable and taken in shackles to Brown's Little Lake Hotel to await the arrival of the circuit court judge. A meeting was held in the Willits Masonic Temple and during the early morning hours of September 4, 1879, a group of 30 masked "regulators," all members of the local Masonic Temple, seized the prisoners and took them to a bridge north of town. They placed ropes around the prisoners’ necks and rocks in their pockets and pushed them off the side-guards of the bridge so their feet dangled in the water, symbolic of a Masonic hanging. Their bodies were not cut down until sometime the next afternoon so as to set an example to others.
A less grim claim to fame: the Willits area is the final home of the famous racehorse Seabiscuit. Ridgewood Ranch, where Seabiscuit trained, recuperated, lived out his retirement and was buried, is located a few miles south of the city.
Some notable names from Willits include Judi Bari, labor leader and environmental activist, who fought to save the Redwoods. Over 1,000 people attended her Willits funeral in 1997. Tré Cool, the drummer for Green Day, lived in Willits during his teen years in the 1980s. The folk singer Jeff Buckley spent a year at Willits High School. Stagecoach bandit Charles Bolles (aka Black Bart) stole multiple Wells Fargo boxes and mail from stagecoaches traveling through Willits.
Beginning in 1996, the city and many residents became embroiled in lawsuits alleging that hexavalent chromium pollution left by the Remco Hydraulics chrome plating plant, which operated in Willits from 1964–1995, was responsible for a host of local health problems. Litigator Erin Brockovich, known for the eponymous movie about her work in a similar case, participated in a lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Every July, Willits hosts the Frontier Days & Rodeo, the oldest continuous rodeo and Independence Day celebration in California. It is also home to the Roots of Motive Power Locomotive Museum, the Mendocino County Museum, and Willits Center for the Arts, and is famous for the “Skunk Train.”
As touted on the town’s homepage, “With a small town atmosphere, Willits is a great place to stay, play, and live!”
Drug Abuse in Willits
In the 1990s, meth raised its ugly head in this bucolic area, as evidenced by a local news report that described the valley as being “caught in the grip of a new drug epidemic that is as deadly and dangerous as any seen before. The drug is methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that law-enforcement officials have labeled the 'crack cocaine of the '90s.' In regions like northern California, methamphetamine ranks second only to alcohol in usage.”
Methamphetamine presents a deadly combination: It is cheap, easy to make, and creates a ferocious addiction that often triggers violence. From bitter experience, California officials have found close links between addiction and child abuse, including sexual abuse. At high levels of addiction, meth users become paranoid and liable to strike out in bizarre acts of brutality, even against family members.
For those who find themselves in the grip of addiction, rehabilitation centers in the area and surrounds are only a phone call away.