Wild Bill Cavitt

Descendants of William Cass Cavitt


first, an essay on Wild Bill Cavitt

by Connie Street

  Many people referred to Bill Cavitt, the tall lanky man with the pungent cigar in his mouth, the ever-present cowlick and the drooping mustache, as "Wild Bill." There is no agreement on the reason for this nickname. Some who knew him said it was because of his distinctive appearance; others say he earned the name because he told such "wild" stories.

  Bill frequently drove his spring wagon to town, delivering fresh cream to the general store. It was here that a large group of men gathered to sit, spit, whittle and swap lies. Bill was expected to do the lying.

  Bill Cavitt had a keen understanding of man's gullibility. Some of his stories bordered on the absurd, many times leaving his audience shaking their heads in amazement long after the laughter had died down.

  He was born in Des Moines Township, Van Buren County, Iowa. Not far from his birthplace, one cold and windy January day, Bill's mother, Judicia, joined the Christian Church. The Fox River was frozen over, requiring the minister to chop a hole in the ice so he could complete the ritual of baptism for his converts.

  After Judicia had been immersed in the chilly water, she was wrapped in blankets and hurried to the edge of a roaring bonfire along the riverbank. Somebody asked her if she was cold and her reply was "No." Hearing her response, Bill drawled "Dunk her again, Parson, she ain't quit lyin' yet."

  From this time on, Bill Cavitt's reputation grew. His quips, comments and stories became legend.

  About 1865, the pioneer spirit gripped the Cavitt clan and they headed west in search of California gold, traveling by wagon train. Years later after returning to Van Buren County, Bill enlightened the Midwestern townspeople about his walk all the way to the West Coast. Many people scoffed at his story; in fact, countless early pioneers did walk to California, their wagons filled with their belongings and not being large enough for the family to ride in.

  Bill found work in California and saved his wages for his return to Iowa. He often told that he had been one of the passengers on the first transcontinental train. He said he was present at Promontory Point, Utah, when the famous golden spike was driven. No records exist to prove whether Bill was present at this historic event. However, his experiences during his journeys gave Bill Cavitt fodder for many stories.

  One day Bill boasted of his own heroism while telling about a cattle drive he had allegedly participated in. He said all the cowboys had long hair and traveled light. They slept in their clothes, simply rolling up in a blanket for the night. One night the drovers got caught in a storm that began with rain, changed to snow, and then became ice. This particular night was so cold that, the next morning, every one of those cowboys awoke to find their long locks frozen so tight to the ground, nobody could get up. Having his long knife in his belt, Bill cut himself loose, then went around giving everyone else a haircut to free them. He maintained that if he hadn't done this, they would all have lain there until the spring thaw!

  After his return to Iowa, Bill married Mary Jane "Jenny" Wiley. It is assumed that Bill and Jenny eloped. Most weddings were performed in the home of the bride, but this young couple was married across the state line at the home of Bill's oldest brother. Those who knew Jenny's parents, James and Mary Wiley, were certain that no man would have been good enough for their daughter, especially this irreverent, boisterous, jocular man.

  Bill and Jenny stayed in Van Buren County for the remainder of their lives, raising five children; a sixth died an infant. There has been much speculation as to the reasons the family remained in Iowa, since most of Bill's family had settled in California. Some believed that Jenny wouldn't budge; others said, "If Bill Cavitt had wanted to move to California, he would have moved to California."

  Some people called Bill Cavitt a braggart. He owned one of the finest herds of Jersey dairy cattle in Iowa and loved to boast about it. He often said, "Grass is king and the dairy cow is queen." One of the few times Bill was ever bested was when he saw his neighbor, Frank Sheets, dressed up for a funeral. Bill asked Frank where he got the fancy clothes. Frank responded that if Bill owned black cows instead of Jerseys, he could afford to dress up, too. Frank often gloated about that moment being the only time he ever saw Bill Cavitt speechless.

  Bill was nearly caught stretching the truth by a couple of city slickers. Having never met a stranger, he had described his fabulous dairy barn to them while on a business trip on the train. Bill claimed his barn was the ultimate in advanced technology, filled with every labor-saving device imaginable. He described things that hadn't been invented - then or today. Bill assured the captivated listeners that having this modern equipment resulted in minimal physical labor for him and sweeter cream produced by his cows.

  Bill left the train at Mount Sterling, leaving his audience to continue their trip. When he went home to do chores in his ordinary dairy barn he gave his extraordinary fictitious inventions no further thought. Weeks later on their return trip, the businessmen remembered Bill Cavitt's stories. They decided they would like to see his incredible barn and its machinery. They got off the train at Mount Sterling, rented a horse and buggy, and drove out to Bill's farm. When they spotted Bill, they told him they had come to see his incredible barn. Their hopes were dashed when, without a blink, Bill's immediate response was, "You're too late. That barn burned to the ground last week."

  Bill was a good farmer and not afraid to try new varieties of crops. One year, he claimed to have a huge potato harvest and offered to sell some of his spuds to his neighbors. One potential customer offered to buy one bushel. Bill stubbornly refused to sell, saying he would not cut a potato in half for anyone!

  Bill's grandchildren had heard these tales all their lives, but knew there was much more to Bill Cavitt than his jokes. In the eyes of his grandchildren, he was a kind, soft-hearted man who always carried pieces of licorice for anyone with a sweet tooth.

  As the years passed and Bill grew older, his grandsons took turns helping with the farm work since Bill's own sons had moved to California many years earlier. Bill often entertained the young men with his stories after the chores were done and Jenny was cleaning up the kitchen after supper.

  Bill lived for 80 years and was fondly remembered by all who had ever heard of him. One of the special remembrances about Bill Cavitt was that he never spoke ill of anyone.

  His most famous story was told one day when he was hurrying past a county road gang and one of the men yelled to him, "Hey, Bill, stop and tell us a lie." Without hesitation, Bill yelled back, "I don't have time. My neighbor just died and I'm on my way to get the undertaker." As his team of horses galloped down the road raising a sheet of dust behind Bill's spring wagon, the men decided to visit the home of the newly bereaved family to offer their condolences.

  Imagine their surprise when the man they thought was dead opened the door to greet them and they realized they had been told the lie they had asked for!

Now, for the Descendants of William Cass Cavitt

  William Cass "Bill" Cavitt was born July 15, 1848 in Van Buren County, Iowa, and died January 20, 1929 in Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa. He married Mary Jane "Jenny" Wiley November 23, 1875 in Clark County, Missouri, daughter of James Wiley and Mary Brown. She was born November 19, 1852 in St. Louis, Missouri, and died September 25, 1935 in Cantril, Iowa. Bill Cavitt and Jenny made their home in Van Buren County, Iowa. Jenny called him "Pa" according to letters she wrote.

  Bill tried to join the army during the Civil War, but was refused because he was too young. Two of his older brothers fought for the Union.

  Bill became senile in his old age. According to his granddaughter, Grace Alexander Brewer, he was mean to Jenny, which was not his normal personality. Bill was committed to the state insane asylum in Mount Pleasant, where he died.

Children of William Cavitt and Mary Wiley are:

1. Gertie Cavitt, b. September 28, 1876, Mount Sterling, Van Buren County, Iowa; d. February 27, 1941, Mount Sterling, Van Buren County, Iowa. She married Emery Alexander February 16, 1899 in Van Buren County, Iowa. See Emery Alexander

Bill, Gertie and Jenny about 1878. It appears Jenny is pregnant, the way she has her hand on her tummy. I would suspect in those days it would be very rare for a woman to openly bring attention to her 'condition.'

2. Lee Cavitt, b. October 10, 1878, Van Buren County, Iowa; d. April 19, 1879. Six-month old Lee Cavitt was sick for two weeks before he died. He was buried at Blackledge Cemetery.

3. Jesse Cavitt, b. June 20, 1880; d. August 14, 1956, Sacramento, California. Jesse Cavitt was a wanderer and never settled down.

4. Bessie Cavitt, b. August 28, 1884, Van Buren County, Iowa; d. June 24, 1947, Oakland, California. She married Harold Scott Avery. He was born August 14, 1887, and died April 12, 1967. Bessie and Harold lived near Roseville, California. He raised turkeys. Bessie taught. In a letter to Mabel Wiley, written by Bessie on December 25, 1922, Bessie said she had learned to drive in the fall, but had not driven to Sacramento. Children of Bessie Cavitt and Harold Avery are William Harold "Billy" Avery, and Elizabeth "Sybil" Avery, b. December 15, 1917, d. 1999 m. (1) Angus Henrickson; m. (2) Leonard Dupre; m. (3) Emmett H. Kushera.

Billy Avery

Sybil Avery

5. Clyde Curtis Cavitt, b. June 20, 1889; d. January 25, 1965, Gardenia, California. He married Edith Hull August 25, 1920 in Cut Bank, Cut Bank, Montana. She was born 1892. Clyde was a railroad worker for many years. In the late 1920s he was laid off and joined his sister, Bessie, in California. He landed a security job at a movie studio in Hollywood and remained there until his retirement. On a visit to Iowa in the mid-1960s, he talked about what movie stars he liked and did not like, and seemingly knew them all. Children of Clyde Cavitt and Edith Hull are Margaret Jane Cavitt, Betty Jo Cavitt, and Enita Dianne Cavitt.
6. William "Earl" Cavitt, b. July 13, 1892, Van Buren County, Iowa; d. December 05, 1960, Stockton, California. He married Clara House. She was born January 1900, and died June 1986. Children of William Cavitt and Clara House are Jesse Franklin Cavitt, b. July 24, 1919; d. March 1924 and John William Cavitt, b. December 26, 1921 d. January 10, 1985.

John William Cavitt Jesse Frankilin Cavitt