Nestled in the picturesque Little Lake Valley, in the very heart of Mendocino County, is Willits, California – a small town with a big personality.
Originally inhabited by the Pomo tribe of Native Americans, the Valley was settled in the 1850’s by pioneering ranchers who found prosperity through ranching and timber harvesting. In 1888 the flourishing tanbark industry led to the incorporation of Willits (named for founder Hiram Willits), and by 1914 the town marked the midway point on the Northwestern Railroad stretching from San Francisco to Eureka.
Willits prospered in the 20th century and saw its population grow from 153 in 1880 to over 3,000 in 1970. Many businesses sprang up along Main Street over the years and the Willits Frontier Days celebration – first held in 1927 – drew thousands of visitors annually to celebrate the 4th of July with a rodeo and parade. Frontier Days is still going strong today and is now billed as “California’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo”.
As the railroad gave way to the highway, Willits enjoyed its spot on the Redwood Highway and became home to many cafes, motels, service stations and auto courts. In the early 1970s Willits was influenced by an influx of “Back to the Land” homesteaders who brought tie-dye and natural food stores to Main Street and propelled Willits towards its position in the early 1980s as the “Solar Capital of the World”.
Today Willits embraces its identity as an eclectic community of individualists. With almost 5,000 people in city limits and an additional 10,000 in the surrounding trade area, Willits has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Still home to two thriving lumber mills, a new state-of-the-art hospital, countless businesses that reflect the unique spirit of the community, and more artists and musicians per capita than most cities, Willits is proud to be known as the Heart of Mendocino County and the Gateway to the Redwoods.