James Hillan

James H. Hillan

Born in 1829, James H. Hillan learns early about loss, resourcefulness, and flexibility. Soon after his birth, his father dies, leaving behind James’s young mother and older brother, Nelson Hillan (1819-1898). Within a year, his mother Martha (Patsy) Hillan marries local Revolutionary War veteran William Morris. The little family lives at 1087 W. Social Row Rd. on a 20-acre farm.

In 1835, the couple have another son, William Morris, Jr. He is born in the small stone cottage the family calls home. Three years later, in 1838, William Sr. dies.

In 1855, James is 26, married to Harriet, and planning to open the Hillan Hotel at 94 North Main St. On Sept. 6, Harriet dies at age 48 years, 9 months…right before the grand opening. James continues with his business plans.

On Nov. 12, 1857, James marries Frances (Fanny) Houser (1836-1916) in the Davisson Methodist Church in Dayton, OH. Fanny is originally from Somerset, OH. Her parents are George Michael Houser (a Methodist minister born in Germany) and Frances Jennings Houser (born in England). Fanny is born on Feb. 7, 1836.

The couple have three children: Charles P. born in 1860, James Laban born in 1863, and May Ella born in 1868.

By 1860, the property at 94 N. Main is valued at $370. James accepts overnight visitors as well as housing nine permanent residents. He and Fanny live there, as well as James’s mother Martha (age 65) and brother William (age 25). Also among the permanent residents are Benjamin Robbins, grandson of Centerville co-founder Benjamin Robbins, and carpenter William Ryan (age 39); William eventually marries Fanny’s sister Rachel. Their 13-year old brother, Benjamin Edward Houser (born in 1846) lives at the hotel and attends school.

Years later, in 1866, James sells the property at 94 N. Main St. to John L. Hole, descendent of Dr. John Hole, first settler in Washington Township. He purchases 26 N. Main St. (currently the Asahel Wright House). He is the final proprietor of the Sign of the Crossed Keys, a log cabin tavern that sits on the northeast corner of Main and Franklin (currently City BBQ). This iconic tavern is originally operated by John Archer, brother of Centerville co-founder Benjamin Archer. People gather here for a good meal, gossip, news, and meetings throughout the years. Under James’s management, the second floor is used as a hotel. In 1869-70, the cabin is totally demolished and replaced with Dr. Dudley Keever’s home and office.

At age 40, on the 1870 census, James reports he is a butcher. His personal estate is valued at $500. Fanny is 34 years old, keeping house. Charles P. is 10, James Laban is 7, and May Ella is 1. The boys attend school.

Ten years later, on the 1880 census, James, now 50 years old, is a grocer. Fanny, 42, still keeps house. Son Charles, 20, and Laban, 16, are both butchers. May Ella is 12 years old.

Some local people believe James is the builder of the small frame structure that currently houses the School Museum at 26 N. Main. No records substantially support this theory. However, it is known James operates a grocery from this location. He sells meats, canned goods, cigars, tobacco, bread, cakes, crackers, and other general supplies. At the time, this tiny building consists of two rooms, storage space in the basement, and a front and back door.

The family suffers more loss. James Laban dies in 1902 in Dayton at age 39; he works as a bartender. Charles dies in 1903 at age 56; he is a metal inspector. James Hillan passes four years later, in 1907, at age 78. In 1916, Fanny dies at 80 in Springfield, OH.

Influenced by the times, James shows resiliency and strength throughout his life. His influence on Centerville is still appreciated today.


Written by Joellen Ulliman, CWH Curator
June 2022