Above: Hollis and Willow Jeffreys have a long history in the Brooklyn and Onsted communities.
By Sheila Cote
Even though I had just met Hollis and Willow Jeffreys, I felt instantly at home with them when they greeted me as I pulled into the driveway of their centennial property on Waterman Road in Brooklyn. I soon found myself riding in a Gator, enjoying a guided tour of almost 200 acres on the Waterman Centennial Farm. My tour guides showed me prairie grasses, ponds, the site of a future lake and dam system, numerous trees — many grown by Hollis, and of course, a custom-crafted dry cabin wrapped in nature on a wooded dreamland in the absolute middle of nowhere.
As we sat inside the enclosed porch facing an original barn, I was taken back to 1871, when the Waterman Farm was established. I soon learned of Willow’s genealogy and relation to the man who founded Brooklyn on June 16, 1821 — Calvin Swain.
Willow’s great-great-grandparents, William Peter Waterman and Harriett Waterman, settled the farm in 1871. “They made bricks on the farm (behind the barn still standing), and many were used in town,” shares Willow. In 1900 William and Harriett’s son, Fred Waterman, and his wife, Genie Hess Waterman, lived on the farm. Genie was a Swain descendant. Willow’s great-grandma Genie sold flowers — “that’s how she made money by selling bouquets of flowers. And rows of flowers still come up every spring — daffodils, tulips, etc., from over 100 years ago.” Willow is the fifth generation from the Waterman clan, the sixth generation from the Swain clan, and the seventh generation from the Calvin clan!
Above: Hollis and Willow on their wedding day, left, and recently in front of their centennial farm.
Great-grandparents Fred and Genie Waterman’s daughter, Lois Waterman, married Clarence Ehnis and lived on the farm starting in 1962. Grandma Lois and Grandpa Clarence’s son, Darrel, married Yvonne, who is Willow’s parents. Willow stated, “I remember my great-grandparents Fred and Genie. This property is where my Grandma Lois was raised. I had eight grandparents and great-grandparents all at the same time. I knew them all. My mom was from Belgium and sent me to Belgium to meet my grandparents and great-grandparents there.”
Willow’s father, Darrel, owned a block in Brooklyn (their house was where the Citgo station currently sits). He was also the Justice of the Peace.
This brings us to Willow, who married Hollis Jeffreys 55 years ago in June 1968. But the marriage might not have happened had Hollis known one seemingly small yet incredibly important detail about Willow. (More below)
They met at Eastern College on a blind date that almost didn’t happen. Hollis explains, “There was a lot of rivalry in those days between Onsted (where he lived) and Brooklyn (where Willow lived). U.S. 12 was the boundary line. You didn’t cross over here (Brooklyn) if you didn’t belong over here. In those days, I wouldn’t wear my varsity jacket to Brooklyn; someone might throw an egg at me!” Willow was a shy freshman who only left her dorm for classes. Her roommate was dating a football player and convinced her to go on a blind date with another football player. When Willow and her friend were in the lobby heading to the date, Willow was told Hollis was from Onsted. Willow turned around to go back upstairs and stated, “I can’t date somebody from Onsted. I can’t do that!” Her friend convinced her to try, so she went on a date.
So why was Hollis willing to go on a blind date with a girl from Brooklyn? “He thought I was from Brooklyn, New York!” Willow chimes in. “I would have probably never gone on a date had I known she was from Brooklyn, Michigan!” Hollis shares.
Born in Hamilton, Alabama, Hollis moved to Adrian when he was four years old, and eventually, his family moved to Onsted. His father told him that he would marry Willow two weeks after he started dating Willow. The two were married between Willow’s sophomore year and Hollis’s junior year at Eastern (where Hollis was all-state, playing four years of football).
Willow and Hollis moved to Waterman Farm in 2004, completely rebuilding the house. “Most of the furniture in the house is from my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.” Countless hours are spent caring for the land and creating habitats for the wildlife between the prairie grass, clover, and water/wetland areas. Willow and Hollis have three sons and their grandchildren, who also spend a lot of time on the farm helping wherever needed.
Willow’s true love is teaching — which she did with her whole heart for 43 years before retiring in 2012. Most of her career was spent at Miller Elementary in Cement City. “I wouldn’t have retired if they hadn’t closed Miller Elementary. Teaching was my life. The joke was that they would just back up the hurst to my classroom and take me — I just loved it there,” Willow explained. Hollis adds, “Willow was the first Teacher of the Year in Jackson County. She was Teacher of the Year for the school system quite often but Teacher of the Year for the county in 2011.” Unsurprisingly, Willow’s love of history overflowed into her classroom when teaching Michigan history, where she incorporated a history trunk full of items the kids could pass around and touch. “The kids remembered it. Then we would dress up and go to Ella Sharp Museum. They had to bring a lunch that looked like lunch from the 1800s. Many kids still tell me that that was one of the most fun things they remembered.”
Hollis taught for over 25 years. He taught wood shop, CAD (computer-aided design), and senior transition, which prepared seniors for a job. One of his students designed their timber frame house on the Waterman farm.
I quickly learned that the art of telling a good story is one of Hollis’s many skills — listening to him share stories of the kids he coached over the years, his attention to every detail of the student’s life, and seeing his investment into teaching and mentoring them was inspiring. He has not only been a teacher and a coach but also competed in rodeos, poured concrete, taught drivers education for 52 years, was an elk hunting guide — and remains an avid hunter.
Through all the ups and downs that life has brought their way — the story of Willow and Hollis is one of true love, partnership, and happiness. The impact of generosity poured into the lives of so many students over the years will be a continuous legacy in their students’ and their children’s lives for the next centennial.