George and Toni Willison were long-time residents of Malta, a small village near Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, where they enjoyed country living and were respected members of the community. They came to Malta in 1946 at the invitation of Katherine Anne Porter to determine if they would like living in South Hill, the house Porter purchased and renovated in 1941. Their subsequent agreement to buy the house from her began a long friendship and correspondence. George Willison lived at South Hill until his death in 1972. Toni Willison remained there until 1997.
George Findlay Willison was born in Denver, Colorado, on July 24, 1896, the son of Robert and Anna Brunton Willison. He received an A.B. from the University of Colorado in 1918. After brief Army service in World War I, he won a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University where he studied English history, economics, and political science from 1920 to 1923. In 1924, he studied French literature at the Sorbonne. After his return to the United States, he worked on newspapers in Denver and New York City between 1925 and 1927.
Willison's subsequent career was wide-ranging. In 1928, he taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, and at the Hessian Hill School at Croton-on-Hudson, New York, between 1929 and 1935. A staunch Democrat, Willison worked in various capacities in state and federal government. During Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, he found employment on the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, principally on the American Guide Series, where he first contributed to the guides for Massachusetts and Colorado. Willison eventually relocated to Washington, D.C., where he served as editor-in-chief for the entire American Guide Series. He also was an editorial consultant for the U. S. Civil Aeronautics Administration from 1942 to 1943 and assistant publicity director for the Democratic National Committee in 1944 and 1945. He served as a speech writer for U. S. Senator Estes Kefauver (Democrat, New York) in 1952 and for New York governor Averill Harriman from 1953 to 1955. From 1959 to 1962 he held positions as a member of the New York Commission on Intergroup Relations and with the New York Department of Commerce and Public Events. Willison involved himself in local affairs, serving as a member of the town of Malta's Democratic Committee and running for town councilman in the overwhelmingly Republican region. In addition, George Willison gained prominence as a writer. His best-known work is Saints and Strangers, published in 1945, about the Pilgrim fathers and their families, friends, and foes. Other works include Here They Dug the Gold (1931); Why Wars Are Declared (1936); Behold Virginia! (1951); The Pilgrim Reader (1953); Patrick Henry and His World (1969); and Let's Make a Play (1940), the last based on his experience with school drama productions and widely used in school theater workshops. He was a frequent contributor to American Heritage. George Willison died on July 30, 1972.
Florence Willison, known to her friends and family as Toni, was born in 1903 and grew up in New York City. As a young woman she worked as a button painter and dental assistant. During the 1920s Mrs. Willison lived in Greenwich Village. An early marriage to Jack Tworkov ended in divorce. George and Toni Willison began their life together in 1928, residing in Annapolis, Maryland; Croton-on-Hudson, New York; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Washington, D.C.; before settling in Malta. The Willisons had one son, Malcolm. Like her husband, Mrs. Willison was politically active. She supported the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War and British, Chinese, and Soviet allied war relief during World War II. She was a volunteer for the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union and, for many years, served as an election official in Malta. Toni Willison died on May 13, 1998.
While corresponding with George Willison on the subject of Cotton Mather, Katherine Anne Porter learned that the Willisons were looking for a home, preferably in the country. Porter purchased the historic home, South Hill, in 1941. Porter found South Hill's remote location too isolating during World War II, so she resided there for only thirteen months. The Willisons purchased South Hill directly from Porter, arranging the payments over a number of years. The delivery of payments on the house occasioned frequent correspondence between them, and a warm friendship developed between the three that endured until the deaths of George Willison and Porter.