The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

All About Ocie Conner Hill

By Tootsie Cassell Pilson © 1984

Issue: April, 1984

In the year 1904, Ocie Conner Hill was born in the home of her grandparents, John and Martha Hylton. Her parents, Jeff and Lou Howell had four children. They spent several years living with Ocie’s grandparents, before moving into a home of their own. This house was situated back in the face of the mountain behind Conner’s View Church in Patrick County.

With a memory sharp as a tack, Ocie carried me way, way back in time.

Here is what she told me….

“The house we lived in,” she said, “consisted of the big house with living and sleeping quarters. The kitchen was a separate building out back. It was a large structure with one window. It also had a shutter window, which we raised in the summer time.”

“The big house and the kitchen were joined by a grape arbor,” she said, “and we could walk under this and never get wet when it was raining. When clusters of grapes hung from this it was a sight to behold.”

“Grandma did all her cooking in a fireplace, using iron skillets,” she said, “and I remember the mouth watering flavor of cornbread and dried beans cooked this way. I also remember baking cakes for grandma using an iron skillet.”

“Back then,” she said, “we had real good gardens. We grew lots of things. We had no fertilizer and never sprayed for insects and disease. The mountain sides hung of lush fruit trees. They had plums, apples and peaches in season. It was a living paradise,” she said.

The mountain sides also brought forth scads of Chestnut trees. Ocie remembered her parents getting her and the other children up at daybreak to go pick up chestnuts before the hogs and cows got to them. Some days they picked up as many as a hundred pounds. At the beginning of the season they usually sold for 6 cents a pound but on into the season they dropped to 1 cent a pound. This didn’t stop them from picking them up. Her papa (as she called him) would carry the chestnuts they picked up by wagon to Larkin Cockram’s store at Vesta, Virginia and trade them for staples and goods.

“Store bought toys were unheard of in my day,” she said. “We used our imaginations to build playhouses in the woods and fields. We used rocks to section off rooms and played with a homemade rag doll.”

She remembered neighbors gathering for quilting parties, rail splitings, hog killings and house and barn raisings. She also remembered their nearest neighbor, Clabe Hubbard, who had a mill where they carried all their grain to be ground.

After spending several years with her grandparents, her parents moved into their own home. She also went to a small school across the road from Conner’s View Church. Later she went to the Wood School. She said, “It was big thing if a teacher visited your home. I remember when my teacher Cora Knowles came home with me. I was tickled pink.”

“When I was growing up,” she said, “Papa would take us to church and to parties in the neighbor’s homes. We were never without a chaperone. Either we went out in groups or with our parents. Had we gone out alone we would have been talked about.”

Tom Conner worked for her Papa and they were childhood playmates. She did not date him until he came out of service in World War I. Later they married and had five children.

When her first child was born, Tom went to Roanoke and got a job. Later he sent for her. She told me about this trip. “I was twenty years old and had never been to Stuart, Virginia in my life.” She said, “My young son Ted and I rode to Stuart with Dewey Wood in a lumber truck before 58 was paved. I saw my first train here and road it to Roanoke and joined Tom. We set up housekeeping there.”

When I said to her, “You mean to tell me you were twenty years old and had never been off the top of the Mountain?” Her comment was, “We didn’t prowl around in my day.”

Her daughter Arlene Barnard can possibly sum up the reunion between Tom and Ocie better than anyone. Here is what she told me. “Mom was famous for making blackberry cobbler in a big porcelain dishpan, but of course we had to pick the berries. She had the secret of making a mouth watering gravy that you wouldn’t believe, and she has always made biscuits from scratch. The home I grew up in was one of love. I can in all honesty say that a day never passed in my childhood but what Mama and Daddy hugged every one of us and told us that they loved us. I never had a spanking in all my life.”

Ocie said, “The happiest time of my life was when I was in love the first time and when the babies came along. I don’t think you truly love but one time.”

She also said, “The hardest obstacle I ever had to overcome was giving up Tom at his death. With all the problems that I’ve had I can count my blessings. The Lord has been good to me.”

Ocie remained single for fifteen years after Tom’s death, then she married Roy Hill. He is 90 years old and is a bed patient. Ocie tends him willing and uncomplainingly, and tells me she takes one day at a time. When I mentioned the fact that she had missed her calling by not being a nurse she said, “If the Lord would give me only one star in my crown for nursing two invalid husbands that would be sufficient.”

She also said, “The times are changing and you’ve got to change with it, but I would like to see this section remained unspoiled. I would hate to see heavy industry destroy the beauty we enjoy.”

“I’ve always had good neighbors,” she said, “and they have been good to me.”

Her nearest neighbor, Mattie Shelor voiced the same opinion about Ocie. She said, “Ocie is a wonderful person. I have known her for 60 years. She is a good neighbor to everyone. She is also an intelligent person. She is a good seamstress and last year she upholstered a chair. She does quilting, crocheting, tends her lawn and garden, and cans the food she raises. A few days ago I looked out my window and saw Ocie on top of her house fixing a leak in the roof. She is a very kind person and I love her.”

At age 80, Ocie is an immaculate housekeeper, yet one feels relaxed in her home. The atmosphere she has created is one of good clean, cozy comfort. Her down-to-earthiness no doubt springs from her upbringing in these unspoiled surroundings.

She has given much by just being the kind of person she is. My visit with her will be remembered for years to come and I can truthfully say - to know her is to love her.

P.S. A special thanks goes out to Ocie’s son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Jewel Conner who live in Florida (and are subscribers to The Mountain Laurel) for inspiring me to write about this wonderful woman.