Imagine being me, an old guy with a beard, standing amid what seems like hundreds of college students in the Slippery Rock Sheetz convenience store, waiting to talk to anyone over 20-years old about a local history question. Finally a woman appears who looks like she is local and might know the answer. I say, “Excuse me, do you know where I might find Centerville? You see my great (X3) grandfather William Hill was one of the original settlers.” She peered at me strangely and replied with a smile, “You’re in it!” My appearance then must have amused her: shock, amazement, delight. You see, just across the street, on a slight rise, sat Slippery Rock University, the largest public institution of higher learning in that part of Pennsylvania, almost 125 years old with nearly 10,000 students and plenty of fancy brick buildings. I was expecting Centerville to be a little farming village with a few wood-frame houses, a byway in the road as the Scottish would say. But, let me start from the beginning of my experience. My day had begun literally in a “driving” rainstorm. I had set out from my home in the mountains of west-central Pennsylvania before 8:00 that morning to drive four hours to Ravenna, Ohio, and a funeral gathering for my oldest first cousin, Charles Pearce (b. 1936), son of Walter Pearce, my dad’s brother. With a few hours to spare, I decided to avoid the outrageous tolls of the PA and OH Turnpikes and take the back way, U.S. Route 422, much more direct if not a super highway. As I approached the city of Butler, my place of birth and seat to the county where my dad’s mother’s family, the Hills, had first settled in western Pennsylvania, I decided to avoid the much larger population centers of New Castle and Youngstown. I would make a beeline to Interstate 80, just to the north, via Route 8, the old Pittsburgh-Franklin Pike, and the Butler-Mercer Road through Slippery Rock. This article then is about my unexpected discoveries that morning and the joys that can abound with genealogy.
This piece was developed between the time I researched and wrote Introductions to my Hill and Barber families and the time I promised my wife I would take her on a wonderful weekend trip to not only my birthplace, but the frontier lands settled by my family in Butler, Lawrence, Mercer, and Venango Counties. The latter is yet to come as of this writing and should be all the better for me having laid the groundwork on my funeral sidetrip. According to my Hill introduction, our first Scots-Irish American William (c. 1740), my five-times (5X) great grandfather, lived just south of Gettysburg, Adams County, during and after the American Revolution and married twice. His second wife was Lydia Jack and they had one son. That Jack surname appears several times in my family. But, our line sprang from William’s first wife Elizabeth and the first of their 16 children. Son John (b.1765) married Jane (or “Jean” in Scottish) Wilson (b.1777) and, according to their obituaries, they claimed Indiana County as home. Their first born of six was William (b.1799), who married Sarah Barber (b.1797), the daughter of Adam and Sarah Barber, who had come to Butler County in the 1790s from Ireland. William Hill, the grandson, apparently came to the county around 1823 after having a piece of land surveyed several years earlier.
William and Sarah’s neighbor, Stephen Cooper, ran an inn and tavern, and the spot of his house is still called Ginger Hill because of the ginger he put in the whiskey he sold. The History of Butler County sarcastically suggests that Cooper may have sold the ginger and gave away the whiskey. At that time Centerville contained four log homes, which included the Cooper tavern and William’s mercantile. The county history says of William, “[He] proved to be a very good neighbor.” At first, one resident wanted to call the place “Muttontown” because he had just eaten his fill of his favorite meat there. Then the name “Middletown” was considered because of its location between the county seats of Butler and Mercer. But, finally “Centreville” [older British spelling] was approved unanimously. Later, the town grew and offered every product and service from chairs to windmills, from millinery to blacksmithing. We know that William Hill began his mercantile reputation there before moving his store just north to Leesburg, Mercer County.
This stopover between the county seats grew rapidly over the next 65 years, and a town meeting was held in 1887 to establish a Normal School there, a state-sponsored institution to train teachers for the ever-increasing number of one-room schoolhouses in western Pennsylvania. Within three years the trustees had been elected, three buildings constructed, faculty appointed, and classes begun. But when did the borough’s name change from Centerville to Slippery Rock? The area’s first post office had been established in 1824 just to the south at Mt. Etna, also known as Daugherty’s Bridge or Mill, and named “Slippery Rock,” an allusion to a rather famous nearby creek. Legend says that in 1826 the Mt. Etna-Slippery Rock postmaster loaded all the important papers and stamps in a wheelbarrow and moved the service to Centerville, but the Slippery Rock name was retained. Supposedly, it was several months until the Feds discovered the move. The name of the community was officially changed to Slippery Rock in 1900 and today is still the only one in all of America. At least three simple origins of the unusual name exist:
Today, the name is a source of pride, a feeling of uniqueness, among both the “townies” and the college students, who by the way, outnumber the former when classes are in session. Among relatives who attended the University were my dad’s brother, Dale Pearce (b.1918), and my second cousin, Jean Noble. I must confess that the Slippery Rock name was the source of some mockery at my competing alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), several counties to the east, when I was in college. This was probably because SRU’s powerful green and white football machine usually beat our Big Indians. Each week, during the season, as the conference scores were being announced, Slippery Rock always received the most attention. I understand that SRU scores are often read at other venues around the country on many Saturday afternoons, to the delight of the crowds. Apparently, this has become a tradition.
Presently, I don’t know why William and Sarah moved north into Mercer County. Was it the push from population of the ever-growing borough of Centerville-Slippery Rock? William Hill was a merchant, so maybe it was the pull of the busy Pittsburg (no “H”) Road, today known as Perry Highway or U.S. Route 19. (See wonderful photos at http://greywolf.bravepages.com/pages2/19Jump.html.) This stretch was named for the Commodore whose conquest on Lake Erie during the War of 1812 helped expel the British from the north American continent once and for all. As for when our Hills left Butler County, the Federal Mercer County census of 1840 shows no Hills, but by 1850, that record includes the following:
-William, age 50, born in Adams Co., Tavern Keeper
-Sarah, age 52, born in Huntingdon Co.
-John B (D?), age 25, born in Butler Co, Farmer
-Margaret, age 19, born in Mercer Co. (probably John D’s young wife, a Marshall)
-Robert B., age 10, born in Mercer Co.
All of the names and dates fit, so William and Sarah probably left Butler County for Leesburg soon after 1840. Let’s continue on the rest of my short side trip.
William Hill’s later store in Leesburg was described by cousin Patricia Hill as “one big room, with the family living in the rear and upstairs, at the corner of [old] Rt. 19 facing toward Mercer, left side.” Patricia’s husband Jim and his sisters remember that the store still had old oil lamps for sale and was filled with antiques. Jim liked the candy case filled with penny candy from which, as a youngster, he got to choose. The Springfield Township map of 1873 lists a sponsor in the right hand margin as Robert B. Hill, Leesburgh (add an “H”), no doubt William’s son who took over the business. The ad boasts: “Dealer in Dry Goods, Groceries, Boots, Shoes, Patent Medicines, and Drugs of all kinds. Leesburg (with no “H”) today has many antique stores, several churches, and a funeral home. It is also known by a multitude of other names: Leesburg Station, Leesburg Spring, Volant, Lockeville, Springfield Falls, and Springfield Furnace, to name a few. Some actually refer to Leesburg itself, whiles others, the general area. Let’s look at them in their natural order, and do click on the links for additional information and beautiful photos. First, Springfield Falls graces Neshannock Creek and attracts many visitors. Leesburg Spring offers pure and natural mineral water, according to a YouTube video. The tiny borough of Volant sits nearby on land that was purchased from local Indians in 1784. By 1806, the first grist mill was operating, and by 1868 J. P. Locke had obtained the land, calling it Lockeville. A quarter century later, the town officially called itself Volant, Latin for “to fly away.” Today you’ll find many small shops and even a winery in and around the old restored mill.
Credit for the construction of Springfield Furnace around 1837 on Wolf Creek is given to Messrs. Seth and Hill. It’s said that President McKinley of nearby Ohio had a stake in the enterprise, but who was the builder, Mr. Hill? Any relation? Perhaps one day we’ll know. Today, archeological work is being done and a local artist is creating jewelry from the colored glass left by the iron refining process. An actual drawing may be seen at the Bruno Jewelry site. Or, read about the restoration of Mercer County’s first iron furnace in the Sharon Herald.
If you have time, you might want to take a driving tour developed by the Mercer County Historical Society that includes many beautiful, interesting, and architecturally significant buildings around the Leesburg area. For instance, the Johnston Tavern was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and I’m told that the basement still has the hooks in the walls where runaway slaves were chained for their own protection.
Finally, Leesburg Station is obviously a reference to the actual train station that existed there on the Pittsburgh Interurban Trolley Service that ran between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie from 1895 until 1953, roughly parallel to U.S. Rt. 19. The light rail system was the third largest in the United States with 666 cars, some of which are still on display at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum near little Washington.
Today, Leesburg is the general moniker identifying all of the above attractions, including the gigantic and popular Grove City Premium Outlet Mall, with 130 name brand stores. Built in the late 20th century along north-south Interstate 79, it’s also just minutes from east-west I-80. We can’t help think that Grandpap Hill would be amazed at the commerce right there in his own back yard. He and Grandma Sarah rest peacefully in the old section of the Leesburg Presbyterian Church cemetery, right in the middle, next to their merchant-heir son Robert B. (b. 1842) and wife Caroline and other early settler families. But William and Sarah’s other son, John Dixon Hill, my great-great grandfather, isn’t buried there. Captain Hill had lead the recruitment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 169th Regiment, Company A, from Mercer County, in the Civil War . After being honorably discharged as a Surgeon’s Assistant at the end of the conflict, he and wife Margaret were able to move their young family onto the rich farmland of southern Butler County, the other end of the county that his father had helped settle and where he had been born. Those North Hills of Pittsburgh became the Eden where several generations of my Hill and Pearce-associated families met, married, and raised their children. Capt. John D. Hill and many of his descendants are buried in the community cemetery in Mars. My late brother Carl (b.1942), named after his great uncle Carl Hill, has his lot there too. I couldn’t help think of him while on my side trip and remember the time in the late 1950’s when he and a friend nearly lost their lives as the car he was driving skidded off the road on a rainy night and into a tributary of Slippery Rock Creek. They both survived, but what an ironic thought to close this article.
My brief side trip was concluded. Neither the pouring rain nor the journey ahead had discouraged this curious genealogist from his rounds. It was on to meet other family in Ohio. I never did discover whom the town of Leesburg was named after, but perhaps that will happen during our mini-vacation there this summer. I’m looking forward to visiting and learning more about all the places described above, and others. But, if there is one thing bad about finding new information on family history, it is that I have to go back to some previously written posts on this webpage, re-read them, re-visit my information, and revise the articles. As inspired as the side trip has left me, that shouldn’t be any problem at all.
“Centreville Borough.” “Slippery Rock Township.” History of Butler County, PA. 1895.
“Legends Abound Over Origin of Name—Slippery Rock.”
“Mercer County History.”
“Slippery Rock University.”