Sunday, July 03, 2005
Franklin Co. history fortified
By Mason Adams
The home of Robert Hill, likely the county's first permanent settler, was dedicated Saturday as a Franklin County Historic Site.
ROCKY MOUNT - In the 18th century, settlers in Western Virginia thought of land ownership in terms of hundreds of acres.
Thus it was that Robert Hill, generally considered Franklin County's first permanent settler, ended up with at least 1,700 acres that included nearly all of Rocky Mount, as well as stretches along what are now Virginia 40 and U.S. 220. Along with the land came a lot of sacrifice: Hill lost two of his five sons to deaths by arrow and tomahawk, respectively. A third was either killed by a panther or trying to break a bucking horse, depending on whom you believe. Hill's other two sons, however, went on to become major players in the early history of Franklin County.
On Saturday, Hill's home, a fortified settlement built in 1743 and located in what would become southern Rocky Mount, was celebrated and remembered when his descendants, history buffs and local officials gathered to dedicate it as a Franklin County Historic Site.
"What we want to do is save what's left," said Linda Stanley of the Franklin County Historical Society. "This is a preservation effort, not a rebuilding of the fort."
Hill and his wife, Violet, came from Pennsylvania down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, also called the Carolina Road and occasionally the Great Warriors Path. The exact route of the road is still debated, but Stanley thinks it came over Windy Gap from Roanoke.
The Hills initially squatted on land near the Wagon Road before eventually securing a land grant later in the century. To protect his family and neighbors from roving raids by American Indians that still traveled the road, Hill built his house out of stones found in the area. The fortified home never housed soldiers, but it served as a refuge during times of attack.
It was only partially successful.
One of Hill's sons was shot and killed by an arrow while standing in the doorway of the house. Another was killed and scalped while near Bald Knob, according to historian and former Rocky Mount lawyer Keister Greer. That son was buried nearby, in what is now Tanyard Cemetery.
Robert Hill died about a year into the Revolutionary War, but other family members played key roles. His wife, Violet, supplied food to American soldiers and their animals. Both of his surviving sons fought in the war, and one of them, Thomas Hill, participated in the pivotal battle for Guilford Courthouse, which helped end British general Lord Charles Cornwallis' attempts to conquer the backcountry South and which sent him toward Yorktown and the end of the war.
Thomas Hill went on to become a major figure in early Rocky Mount, as he and James Callaway owned the bulk of the land in town. His brother, Swinfield Hill, became one of the first justices in Franklin County.
Franklin County was founded in 1786.
The Robert Hill home and surrounding property stayed in the family for 174 years before finally changing hands in 1917. Eventually it came into the possession of B.A. Davis Jr., the father of longtime Franklin County Circuit Court Judge B.A. "Monk" Davis III. In 1960, a brush fire destroyed a large portion of the home, which by then had grown to include 10 rooms and five chimneys. Legend has it that after the fire, B.A. Davis Jr. stuffed four of the five chimneys with dynamite and exploded them. The rest of the house, except for the original chimney and structure, was bulldozed, Stanley said.
These days, the property is owned by Christian Heritage Academy. The Hill house went ignored until one day when a teacher noticed a parent dismantling it.
"The teacher called up the historical society and said, 'Come out and take a look at it,'" Stanley said.
Using volunteers and inmate labor, the Franklin County Historical Society cleaned up the fort. Now, a marker denotes the home as a county historic site, and a kiosk allows visitors to hear a brief audio presentation.
Cecil Hill, a descendant of Swinfield Hill who now lives in Roanoke, described visiting the site.
"I walked up and put my hand on the stone," he said. "It would make the hair on your head stand up ... I'm really grateful the people here are progressing with this. When my grandson comes out - 10 generations after Robert Hill - he can lay his hands on the stones and found out what I found out."
(C)2005 The Roanoke Times