Autobiographical Sketch of Roland B. Gill for the WPA - May 31, 1936
I was born at Mt. Blanco , the old Gill plantation on James River in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Before the Gill family owned this place, it was once the home of John Wayles Eppes, who married Jefferson's daughter, Eppes father who lived near Bermuda Hundred having given him the place as a wedding present. The Jefferson family lived up the James a little ways at Gatesville afterwards called Osbornes. A part of the old Clay place was also later incorporated in Mt. Blanco, as was a tract belonging to the Elam family.
When I was three years old my father moved to Petersburg to join his brother John A. Gill in the wholesale grocery business, and he was a prosperous merchant in Petersburg until his death. We lived first on Old St. which was old in age, as well as in name. Old St. like Lombard , Bollingbrook, Bank and lower Sycamore Sts. was, over a hundred years ago the aristocratic section of Petersburg, and many houses now standing date back to early seventeen hundred, with their three and four stories and gable slate roofs and fine door ways opening directly on the street. These old houses are the delight of antiquarians. Later my father moved to Jefferson St. and in the rear of our home stood Bollingbrook, the old home of the Bolling family , surrounded by fields called East Hill, and over looking Appomattox river. The house is now gone, but I can remember playing in it before it was torn down. It was a colonial frame house with chimney at each end, hall in the middle and front and rear porch, with gable windows in roof. The front porch overlooked Appomattox river. At that time I attended East Ward school, in the neighborhood between Petersburg and the old town of Blandford. Miss Lue Peebles was my first teacher.
Later when I was about 16 years old my father built a home in Bollings, center Hill tract on Franklin St. and was the second to buy a portion of that old historic home site of the Bollings. Setting back in about 20 acres of rare old plantings of magnolia, all kinds of laurel, every kind of evergreens, and a jungle of wisteria, and other vines and flowering shrubs, was the beautiful old Center Hill mansion, one of the most beautiful homes of the period of early 1800, and home of the Bollings , who once owned most of Petersburg. The boys of the neighborhood, had an ideal play ground in this property which was vacant at the time, and used to roam through this old house with its marble halls and tiled floors. We found an interesting tunnel leading from the cellar, evidently toward the river , not far distant, through which a horse and buggy could pass, but the tunnel was closed a short distance from its entrance.
At this time my life was protected and uneventful. I went to the Petersburg high school, which was located on Union St where the Y.M.C.A is now located. Among my teachers there, in the senior class, was Miss Anna Bolling. Miss Anna, the last of the Bollings in Petersburg, was a rosy cheeked, white haired lady of about seventy. She was a woman of great personality and a celebrated character in Petersburg. She vas a firm disciplinarian, and fond of the old english classics, which she knew by heart.
I attended the First Baptist Church and Sunday School. Among my Sunday School teachers was Dr. William Pitcher. The church had prominent Baptist ministers as pastors, among them Dr. Dargan, Dr. Acree, and Dr. Henry Battle now of Charlottesville.
My fondest memories are of vacations spent at old Point of Rocks, the home of my mother's family, where my grandmother and uncle lived .This place is about eight miles down the Appomattox from Petersburg, and there a great point of rocks overlooks a wide basin of the Appomattox where it branches out into several channels forming islands and marshes. As a youth I saw some of the remaining small log buildings used as wards of the great hospital erected there by the Union forces in. the Civil War. I vas very fond of picking up minnie balls and Indian arrow heads. It was fun to get on the wagon with my uncle , and go to Bermuda Hundred with a load of water melons. I also spent much time at my Aunt, Mrs Wray's place called Bay View opposite City Point on the Chesterfield side of the Appomattox, where the James and Appomattox form a bay. When I think of Bay View, I think of a lane of grand old cherry trees, cherry pies, the grand river view, overlooking the bay, old City point and down the James, of fishing among the flags on the flats, and catching perch and cats as fast as hook hit the water. Above all I think of Aunt Betty and Uncle Litt Wray, both now dead. My Aunt was a very pious woman, and organized at Enon Church, the first "Sun Beam " society, which became the ohildrens society of the Southern Baptist Church. I also think of Enon. Baptist Church, and the protracted meetings, at which I heard, preachers like Dr. Hatcher, Dr. Hutson, and other prominent divines. Dr. Alfred Bagby , of the prominent Bagby family was the pastor of Enon I remember best. Out in the grove , on long tables were served fried chicken, lamb, Brunswick stew, lemon pie, cherry pie, and other dainties. The baptisms were held on the shore of James river at Mt.Blanco, where I was born, and where my aunt Laura and uncle Ned (Gill.) then lived. The baptisms were touching and picturesque events. Dr. Alfred Bagby of the prominent Bagby family was the pastor of Enon I remember best.
After leaving high school my first job was with Geo. J. Morrison & Co., leading drygoods merchant of Petersburg. I worked there 12 hours a day at $3.00 a week. Later my father got me a job with the Bank of Petersburg, where I was runner, and did some bookkeeping. When the bank merged with another, I went into the office of my fathers wholesale business, where I stayed some time. After my father's death , I was in the wholesale business myself for over five years, having a part interest in the business. There was a. slump in business after the War, and I sold out to my partners, and decided I would like a small orange grove in Florida. Visiting around Tampa, I found few good small groves on the market and prices so high, that I came back to Virginia, and bought a farm on the Appomattox river about four miles above City Point, in Prince George. There was a beautiful rocky point and grand view in front and down the river to City Point. I built a colonial type home there, overlooking the river, and took especial pride in beautifying the grounds, planting many roses and shrubs and annuals around the house as the location was well adapted for landscaping, and set out a large orchard around the house, and was glad to get back to Virginia and my people who lived around.
My place was on the sites of two old plantations
of past times, "Tusculom", and ”Titusses". Tusculom was the site of
an old Gilliam home.
I could not keep out of this activity, and Mr. Craig, a Petersburg architect and myself, put up an ice plant onJames River next to the Norfolk and Western station. I will not go into details of this businese as it would be a long story. We saw Hopewell build up with those large barrack like rooming houses, some of them with over 100 bed rooms which rented to the Duront employees for $I.00 a room and sometimes, three men would occupy a room, as some worked at night each man would pay a dollar, and they were great money makers, but were also fire traps. I remember the great fire in which most of these great barracks were burned down and Hopewell with them.
When the war was over, a great many soldiers landed from ships at the wharf next to our ice plant. It was a sight never to be forgotten to see these ships dock, loaded to the gunwales, with the soldiers returning from Europe, and the War. I talked with many of them, and they told me interesting stories of their experiences on the other side.
When the armistice was signed, activities in the
great Du Pont plant in Hopewell ceased, and for a while we were
practically a deserted town.
Sometime after the close of the DuPont plant, other enterprises were induced to locate in Hopewell, Including the Tubize Artificla Silk Co, and we again looked forward to becoming a prosperous growing town. On the closing down of the Tubize Co. in 1934, and the loss of several other plants due in part to the depression, the business men in Hopewell became hard pressed again.
Often seeing a rare old home, sometimes abandoned, setting back from the road we would ask a negro living in a shack nearby, whose place it was, or what old family had lived there, and the reply would be " I dont know sur, I think Mr. Hummel–Ross owns it", the Hummel–Ross paper plant in Hopewell having bought up many large tracts for the growing timber.
The descendants of the original owners still live on some of the historic old places, but many old plantations have been bought by wealthy city people, especially on the rivers.
As a real estate dealer, and later on the Writers Project, in traveling over the highways and byways of the older counties, especially Prince George , Surry and a portion, of Chesterfield, I have come across many sites where old homes formerly stood. Old cherry trees, and the present varieties don't seem to grow as large, a pile of brick where the chimney stood, some knarled fruit trees, cedars, jonquils , and old fashioned shrubbery run wild, tells the story of a home once standing, with cultivated fields, where now may be a wilderness. The grass seems to grow finer and greener on these spots, and there may be a graveyard with a stone or two. The abundance of such spots leads one to believe that a hundred years ago, the rural population of these counties was greater than it is today, and that there was much more land in cultivation.
Again, it seems that the most beautiful homes in the country were built sometime between 1700 and the Revolutionary War, and the abundance of such homes seems to show that, that must have been the golden age of country life in Virginia.
As a small real estate dealer, and rental agent in Hopewell, and during our many periods of depression, especially when the Tubize plant closed down, it seems that I just could not put out of houses many who had no job . My wife had charge of the Red Cross office in Hopewell, serving without pay, for about two years.
I have found my work on the Writers Project very interesting, and in writing of the old homes and families, our researches have dug up information both interesting and valuable, much of which may have been lost to posterity.
In interviewing old people past 80 in regard to social customs of the past, much of the colorful life of the past has been recorded, that in a few years it would be impossible to obtain.
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