Photo of Reuben W. Hill believed to be the father of John Preston “Pete” Hill courtesy of West Virginia archives
William and Betty Hill of Madison County, perhaps members of the well-known, lighter-skinned Hill family of Culpeper and Madison, settled in the Buena area as early as 1870. Migrating with them were numerous sons and daughters, including Robert (believed to be Pete Hill’s uncle on his father’s side), born in 1851.
Historical maps, oral histories and field surveys reveal a network of roads that crisscross Cedar Mountain between the White Oak Church area on Route 15 and the heart of Buena. It was along these now-abandoned cart paths on the slopes of the mountain that the Hills established their home place and began their life of freedom.
On the mountain side, one can still find the simple artifacts of a life long since abandoned. A stone foundation, the artwork of a hand-dug and stone-lined well and a fence-enclosed graveyard all remain as ghosts declaring, “We were here.”
Did Lizzie Seals live here with her sister and brother-in-law? Was Pete’s birth an event at one of the evident homesteads? Did he spend his early childhood on the mountainside above Buena?
During his lifetime, Robert H. Hill married three times (the second being Pete’s aunt, Ella), fathered several children and acquired a considerable amount of wealth.
Upon his death in 1914 and the subsequent death of his third wife, only two of his children would inherit his estate. His daughter would receive about 21 acres and the “valuable house,” while the son received a larger tract of land and the carriage house. Granddaughter Ruth was to have the piano.
On one excursion into the woodlands of the remote side of Cedar Mountain searching for clues to life in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we came upon an extraordinary find. Almost hidden from sight beneath trees laden with the leaves of late summer rose a two-story frame house that spoke of a once grand nature. There was another hand-dug well and a few remaining outbuildings.
My colleague was legitimately concerned about the wisdom of venturing within the house, but for me, I knew the not knowing would haunt me forever. Gingerly testing each board beneath every next step, I examined each room upstairs and down. Despite having been abandoned for decades, the house hummed softly to me of prosperity and a life well lived, at least for a while.
As I entered the parlor on the ground floor, my heart began to pound and then sank in sadness as I realized I was standing before the ruins of Rose’s inheritance: a once magnificent piano. Perhaps it was the ghost of songs played on those ivory keys that I was experiencing as a gentle melodic breeze floating through the failing structure. I could imagine how the wind might have carried those pleasing tunes throughout the forest and nearby homes, bringing smiles to faces in another time.
My research, combined with the previous work of the baseball historians, was conclusive: the great Negro Leagues’ baseball player and Hall of Fame inductee was a man named John Preston Hill, born in Culpeper County, Va. with family roots in nearby Orange and Madison counties.
But could I convince the authorities at the National Hall of Fame that what they had was incorrect? All I could do was give it my best effort.
Previously published in the Orange County Review June 21, 2018.