Our Story

The Willson Company was founded in 1866 by General Lester S. Willson as a mercantile company in Bozeman, MT.

Re-established in 1990 by Lester S. Willson, Jr. (III), The Willson Company consulted major regional shopping centers and specialty clients, and winning several MAXI and MERIT Awards from the International Council of Shopping Centers.

In 2010, The Willson Company was re-established by Marc Willson to serve as a business advisor to America’s small towns and merchants.

Since 1866, the legacy lives on ….

Lester S. Willson enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 as a private from Canton, NY.  He mustered out in 1865 Lt. Col. of the 60th New York Volunteer Infantry after being wounded at Chancellorsville and accepting the surrender of the
city of Savannah during General Sherman’s famous “march to the sea.”  He returned to NY as the state’s Quartermaster General to demilitarize the state and, at a meeting in Horace Greeley’s office in 1866, heeded Schuyler Colfax’s advice to “Go West.”

In 1866, Lester sent his brother Davis Willson  with Charles Rich and L.W. Tuller, on an “immigrant” wagon train, up the Bozeman Trail, to Montana.   As many as Forty travelers lost their lives to Red Cloud’s Native Americans that year, but the Willson party persisted on to Bozeman. The men commenced in business in tents and log cabins, and Lester joined his partners the following year. The first enterprise was a freight company, followed by the first bank in town, and later a mercantile store owned solely by Lester and known as The Willson Company.  The brick edifice built in 1903 still stands as a cornerstone of Bozeman’s Main Street.

Gen. Willson started the business as any enduring business should start – with a vision:

“My business standards shall have in them a note of sympathy for our common humanity.  My business dealings, ambitions and relations shall always cause me to take into consideration my highest duties as a member of society.  In every position in business life, in every responsibility that comes before me, my chief thought shall be to fill that responsibility and discharge that duty so that when I have ended each of them I shall have lifted the level of human ideals and achievements a little higher than I found it.”

The Willson Company, in fact, endures today with the same ideals.  The General died in 1919 and The Willson Company building was eventually occupied by other retailers in the latter part of the twentieth century.