Johnson, Willa Viley (1837–1913)

By: Amanda Oren

Type: Biography

Published: February 1, 1995

Updated: April 27, 2019

Willa Viley Johnson, rancher and businessman, was born on March 4, 1837, in Scott County, Kentucky. He started his career as a cotton planter, then became a stockholder in Bartley-Johnson and Company, a distillery in Kentucky. In 1860 he married the sister of one of his partners, Lily Tilford; they had four children. Johnson served in the Civil War and held the rank of major. By 1882 the Johnsons had lived all over the South and decided to move to Colorado City, Texas. As vice president of the Kentucky Cattle Raising Company, Johnson purchased for the company a tract of land in Crosby County on which he built the Two-Buckle (Kentucky) Ranch. He soon had a disagreement with Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, a stockholder in the company, and decided to sell his stock and invest the money elsewhere. In October 1883 he returned to Louisville, Kentucky, and organized the Magnolia Cattle and Land Company. In 1883 and 1885 he purchased land in Borden County and later additional acreage from the Texas and Pacific Railway to build the MK Ranch. (MK was the brand used by the Magnolia Cattle and Land Company.) As manager he fenced the MK in 1884. After a number of droughts Johnson lost his cattle and in 1894 liquidated his property to the Columbia Finance and Trust Company.

In 1884 he had personally purchased four leagues and leased several thousand acres of land in Lynn County. There he organized the Dixie Ranch. After losing the MK, he lived on the Dixie and frequently traveled to Crosby and Borden counties. He developed a system of windmills to bring underground water to his dry-prairie ranch. He also discovered that milo maize and kafir corn grew well on the High Plains. He helped get legislation passed for the protection of cattlemen. In 1902 he sold the Dixie Ranch and invested in a Mexican leather factory that eventually failed. Even though his investments were not always successful, he and his wife were the most illustrious citizens in Colorado City, where they were active in the Episcopal Church. Johnson spent his last years with his daughter and died in 1913 in Colorado City.

Dorothy Austin Dennis, "Major Willa Viley Johnson and the Kentucky and Magnolia Cattle Companies," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 48 (1972).

  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Amanda Oren, “Johnson, Willa Viley,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1995
April 27, 2019