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One of the most influential and successful businessmen in Castile, NY, between 1861 and 1908 was Willis Frederick Graves. Born on January 14, 1831 in the Town of Eagle, Willis was the second child of Ralph Graves, who had relocated from Vermont in 1819.
From the start, Willis proved himself an industrious worker on the family farm. He rapidly discovered the value of saving his money and the importance of an education. After exhausting the resources of the school library in Arcade, NY, he turned to private education. He earned enough money to attend Arcade Seminary to be trained as a schoolteacher. In 1849, he began teaching school near Arcade, working on the farm or selling books for supplemental income during school vacations. He soon moved up through the ranks to serve as principal at several different union schools in the region, including Sandusky, Pike, Centerville, Portageville, Attica, and Arcade. In 1854 he attended Normal School in Albany to complete his education. He also married Jennie Colton of Arcade that same year.
While in Albany, he was employed at a piano factory, which eventually led him to the initiation of his musical instrument business at the beginning of the Civil War. After he resumed teaching at Portageville in 1855, he ordered a piano from Albany that was transported on the Genesee Valley Canal in the final leg of its journey. He later sold the instrument at a profit, we assume, sparking the idea to open a store to sell musical instruments. Willis soon altered his career path from education to retail.
W. F. Graves proved to be a gifted salesman, able to sell pianos and organs easily at a considerable profit throughout the state. He left education altogether in the early 1860s. He sold a farm to provide the capital needed to establish his musical instrument business in Castile. He was proud of the extensive floor space in his store to show off his wares, which enticed buyers from all around the area.
As his reputation and fortune grew, piano and organ manufacturers visited his business, vying for contracts with him to sell their products in his establishment. Before long, he enjoyed customers in almost every state in the Union, acquiring the sobriquet, “Piano King.”
Graves was a man recognized for his integrity and moral code. He was also a willing lender for mortgages and other debt instruments. He worked tirelessly to improve the business climate in Castile. Willis was also extremely involved in village affairs, frequently lecturing about best business practices to his colleagues. Never satisfied with his success, Graves became a real-estate broker, amassing many properties in his portfolio. He owned farms throughout Wyoming County, the Wiscoy Hotel in Allegany County, and several properties within the village of Castile. He was the ideal entrepreneur with well-diversified investments.
W. F. Graves was one of those larger-than-life people with a dynamic personality. Physically, he was a strapping tall man, reportedly weighing 245 pounds. He enjoyed robust health throughout his life and Castilians said he could move a piano by himself if necessary. His wife, Jennie bore him one child who died in infancy, and the couple remained childless after this heartbreaking loss. Although rumored to possess a frail constitution, Jennie was an important contributor to his business. She was a gracious hostess and involved with church and community activities.
If there was a blot on Graves’ reputation, it was his involvement in the Robert Van Brunt murder trial and with the Roy family in 1887. He publicly denounced both Maggie and Eva Roy—mother and daughter over their perceived immoral conduct in connection with the murder of Will Roy, Eva’s half-brother. Eva originally sued him for $30,000, with Maggie suing for $5,000 in February, 1887. The slander suits were initiated only days after the conclusion of the trial. The case was resolved in September, 1887 for a measly $500. The judge threw out several of Eva’s causes of action, which quickly reduced the exorbitant amounts. The women may have achieved some satisfaction in their “win,” but for Graves, it was probably no more than a nuisance suit.
W. F. Graves enjoyed prosperity and fame until his death on the streets of Warsaw, NY on October 30, 1908. Graves suffered a stroke that claimed his life within minutes. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $212,000, which in current valuation would be over $5.6 million dollars. A large, well-attended funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church in Castile, and he was buried in the Graves’ family plot, Arcade, NY.
Wyoming County History 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
The Daily News, February 26, 1887
Buffalo Commercial, February 25, 1887
Buffalo Evening News, September 9, 1887
Buffalo Weekly Express, September 28, 1887
Wyoming County Times, December 13, 1906
The Castilian, November 8, 1908
The Nunda News, April 24, 1909