Weather Blog

Generations of family's dedication gives Orcas Island 122 years of weather records

Generations of family's dedication gives Orcas Island 122 years of weather records
Photo from John Willis' weather station at his property on Olga. (Courtesy: Jeff Alberts, DatabaseSurfaceStations.org)

OLGA, Wash. -- Those of you who live on Orcas Island can thank the incredible dedication of four generations of the Willis family for giving you over 120 years of weather records.

"We've just kind of kept up, maybe it'll be our claim to fame, our legacy," says current observer John Willis.

In 1886, The Willis' settled on 150 acres in Olga, which is on the south-central part of the eastern peninsula of the Orcas Island. In 1890, Richard C. Willis began taking daily weather observations.

"The Signal Corps put out request for volunteer observations and send them in," John Willis said. "That's how it got started.  My great-grandfather took it upon himself to do that, and we just kind of kept it going."

In his log dated April 1897, Richard Willis notes that temperature was measured on the veranda on the north side of his house and he took temperatures at 7 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Richard kept going for 17 years until he handed over the reins to his son Cecil in 1907.

Cecil had to get creative in April of 1925 and move the thermometer under a roof of his south porch because his shelter was blown over in a storm. The logs note that a new shelter was planned in a few weeks.

Two years later, tragedy struck as Cecil was killed in a logging accident on the property in July of 1927. That's when Cecil's son Culver took over, who with the help of his mother Louise and sister Frances, kept the weather records going.

Culver would be blessed with a very long life and maintained the records for 60 years until he died in 1985 at the age of 87. No worries though, his son John took over and is still taking observations to this day, every night at 7 p.m.

He says they have an old max/min thermometer that records the day's high and low, a rain gauge, and small anemometer near the water. And he'll take notes of anything significant.

"I keep an eye on the wind and we get some unusually heavy winds, I usually write that down and generally try to describe the sky conditions or hailing or general observations," said John Willis.

Fraser wind events the most memorable

He says their home is full of notebooks with the 122 years of observations -- much of it not really cataloged but it's all been reported to NOAA over the years, and they keep the official records. I asked what are the most memorable weather events he and his family had witnessed there and he said the Fraser Wind arctic blasts were the worst. Specifically he mentioned the epic winter of 1949-1950, the snowstorm and howling winds of December 1990 into January of 1991. 

Perhaps one of the snowiest events was the December 1996 snow that brought three feet to parts of the island, and 28 inches measured at his home. "Still managed to get out there and struggle to take care of the livestock," he said. "Pretty crazy situation."

He also mentioned the blizzard of 1916, which his dad said left so much snow that there were still some leftover snow drifts in May.

His family's dedication has not gone unnoticed. In the 1980s, his family was invited back to Washington D.C. to be honored among others for their dedication as weather observers.

"Nice to know we were appreciated, we really enjoyed it," he said, adding he has a photo of him shaking hands with Marilyn Quayle.

What does the future hold?

John Willis, who is now in his early 70s, says he isn't sure who will someday take the reins of Olga's weather observations. He has three sisters and a brother-in-law -- some who live on the 82 acres the family still owns. But as of now, he's content just to keep tracking the weather from his slice of paradise in the San Juan Islands.

"We've got everything you could possibly want," he said. "It's pretty special."

And thanks to the Willis family, that slice of paradise has a very nice long stretch of weather records. You can see the fruits of the Willis' labor here, which shows the averages and records for Olga.

And here is where the station is located:


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Very special thanks to UW Research Meteorologist Mark Albright, who is going around researching all of these long-time weather stations to document their history using the Environmental Document Access and Display System.  I hope to have similar weather stories from him in the future.