About Database Families Photos Query Links Search Home

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.
Before I had finished the house however, developments started at City Point when the Du Pont Company started a dynamite plant near there, but soon decided to build the great gun cotton plant. Well do I remember the tremendous activity started. I remember the first lot sale when Hopewell , a hundred acre tract owned by Richard Eppes was put on the market at auction. I attended that sale, and where Broadvay is now saw foreigners buying the lots as fast as offered, sometimes passing a hat around among their friends in order to make a down payment. These lots bought for $I00.00 or more dollars afterwards sold for thousands. I bought a lot overlooking the river for $575 and sold it for $750 in a few days. It afterwards sold for $2500 after passing through several hands. This was in the spring of 1914.

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.

The lawlessness in Hopewell before the great fire was great.  My brother Dr. Spencer Gill, occupied an office on the corner of Railroad Ave . and Hopewell Sts, then about the center of the business activity of the town. One night  they stated  shooting in an apartment next door, and bullets began to come through the flimsy walls. We sure beat it out of there. From his office window, gun battles in the street could often be seen when Shorty Henderson, the Chief of Police would be trying to make an arrest. During the fire when first one building caught and then another, several of us were helping my  brother move his office furniture. Some one shouted "dynamite",  You should have seen us run. In two minutes the street was cleared. They were dynamiting buildings to stop the fire.

Then came the entry of the U.S into the war, and tremendous activity at Hopewell , and the soldiers to Camp Lee, which was near Hopewell. They were the 80th. division, and the men were drafted from western Virginia, West Virginia and Western Pensylvania.  Hopewell streets were full of them. I never saw such fine looking young men. All tall and many must have been over six feet tall. One Sunday with friends I went up to camp Lee, and saw the rookies arrive. Train load after train load would pull in, and a steady stream rushed to the camp from the train. Many were without hats or even coats, and seemed to have been picked up just where they were at work.

Things were happening to me too. About that time the government took over my farm, along with many others , for a rifle range, leasing it first and afterward buying it.  I had to admire Captain Bazire, who had charge of purchasing these places, for his efficiency and tact. The deal for my place was closed very quickly, as he knew more about the price I paid for it and the cost of my improvements than I did.  I asked him about that and he said "Come in here Joe." In came Joe Prohasky, the young Bohemian who had sold me my place, and who on occassion had been curious as to the cost of my improvements. He laughed and asked me if I wanted to sell him back the place at what i paid for it.  He was then employed to help Capt.  Bazire, in. appraising the farms in the neighorhood where he had lived, and where there were many  Bohemians. The government paid me a fair price however, and there was no kick.  Capt.  Bazire stated that owing to the fact that the U.S. was making us move , better prices than usual would be paid. It was the thrill of my life to get a check for my place but it was not net as I owed something on it.

I then lived at the Berkeley hotel in Hopewell, and often could hear the soldiers,  tramp, tramping by all night singing their songs, and marching to the boat at the City Point wharf. They usually moved at night.

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.

In I918 I married  Miss Mary Elizabeth Sherman who lived near my home on the river, in. Prince George County, near Hopewell.

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.
The failure of our ice plant to make anything like its capacity of ice, had caused my partner and myself great financial loss.  Like all, or most small ice plants, it was closed down a good part of the season, on account of trouble with the intricate ice making rnachinery. Money I had
made from the sale of my farm and other sources, was practically all swept away.

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.

My appointment to work with Judge Robertson, as a writer on the Federal Writers Project, early in 1936,  was a life saver for me.  Ever since I learned to read I have been a great reader.  I have been especially interested in the history of Virginia. Looking into the past history of old homes and families, we have visited many rare old places in Prince George , Surry, Charles City, New Kent, and Sussex Counties. These old places,  many of them on the James and other rivers, date back to early after the settlement at Jamestown and have an atmosphere of their own. While many of the old homes have of course disappeared, on account of age, war and fire,  a surprising number are left. While sometimes the neighbors can give some information as to the history of these old homes, many times they are surprisingly ignorant of their past history.

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.


© 1999-2006 Nola Duffy, Carol Morrison or individual contributors. No portion of the data available here may be reproduced for further publication without express consent of the original contributor.