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The history of the John Henley Hill House

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020322 history hill house 9.doc

Editor’s note: This is the first of three columns detailing the information surrounding the John Henley Hill House.

The John Henley Hill house and its location is a perfect southern scene of peace and tranquility. 

Sitting proudly on a hill, located just a short distance from the town of Trinity, the house is surrounded by giant Southern magnolias, stately oaks, ancient cedars with sphagnum moss hanging from the boughs and crepe myrtles up against a backdrop of pines. 

The setting is undoubtedly as it was 135 years ago when it was built and landscaped. 

There is evidence that a red brick drive meandered from the road to the house, which must have been an impressive site. The integrity of the property and home has been maintained for over a century. The home, built in 1880 by John Henley Hill, as it stands now, is a near perfect example of simple style, elegance and historical integrity. 

In the late 1860s and 1870s the town of Trinity was beginning to show signs of growth. Promoted by the building of the International and Great Northern Railroad in 1872, and huge land prospects of virgin timber, Trinity was a hub of a growing commerce. 

Farming still was prominent in the outlying areas with farmers using the Trinity River for navigating shipments of cotton and crops to Galveston. When the rail was finished from Houston to Palestine, farmers and merchants were able to ship via the railways and river navigation began to decline. 

In the 1870s, after the Civil War, the old plantation owners of the farmlands began selling off their vast property holdings. 

Trinity served as the county seat from 1873 through 1874 and it was then that residents elected to move the county seat to Pennington. Sumpter, Trinity County’s first county seat, from 1852 through 1873, began to decline after 1873, and many of its prominent citizens moved to Trinity for the advantage of railroad and commerce. 

The first Post Office in Trinity was established Feb. 28, 1872, with Sam. T. Robb as postmaster. Robb, a lawyer and early settler in the town of Sumpter, had moved to Trinity by 1872. In viewing Trinity County Deed records from 1876 to present it is obvious that Robb was also in the business of buying and selling land. 

In the early development of what is now Trinity County, there were several large plantation owners who had migrated west to Texas from the Old South. The lands along the Trinity River were cleared by hundreds of slaves for the benefit of cotton and crop production. Before the railroad was built in 1872, the primary means of shipping crops to market was the Trinity River. 

The Hill house sits on one of the earliest plantation sites located in the Elisha Roberts Survey. Roberts, a wealthy slave owner from Kentucky, came to Texas in 1824, settling in San Augustine. He acquired the earliest Mexican land grant in 1831 for 4,428 acres of land in what is now known as Trinity County.

When he died in 1845 the 4428 acres located here in Trinity County, was inherited by his four daughters, Ester Jane Roberts Sublett, Margaret Roberts McDonald, Mahala Roberts Sharp Hall and Ann Roberts Doughtry. Ester Sublett and Margaret McDonald, both widows by 1851, bought out their sister’s 1,107-acre parcels in 1854. 

Ester Sublett owned the west half and Margaret McDonald owned the east half of the original survey fora total of 2,214 acres of land for each of the women. A receipt found in the Elisha Roberts Probate dated February 1846, states: 

Huntsville, 3 February 1846 


… please pay A.M. McDonald (Alexander McDonald, husband Of Margaret McDonald) One Hundred and Thirty Eight 57/100 Dollars for supplies furnished to the Trinity Plantation. 

R. Hannay 

John Hill purchased 200 acres from S.T. Robb and began construction on this house for his family. The John Henley Hill House is located at 2005 Pinecrest Road in Trinity. From the town of Trinity, go south on State Highway 19 to East Tatum Street, Turn left (east) go 2/10 mile to Pinecrest Road, turn right (south) and go 9/10 mile to driveway entrance on left. COURTESY PHOTOSJohn Hill purchased 200 acres from S.T. Robb and began construction on this house for his family. The John Henley Hill House is located at 2005 Pinecrest Road in Trinity. From the town of Trinity, go south on State Highway 19 to East Tatum Street, Turn left (east) go 2/10 mile to Pinecrest Road, turn right (south) and go 9/10 mile to driveway entrance on left. COURTESY PHOTOSAnother receipt found in the probate files reads: 

“Rec’d of Noel Roberts as one of the Executors of E. Roberts, deceased, five dollars for advertizing the Trinity place for rent this 1 March 1848. Signed H.W. Sublett 

These receipts indicate that there was, in the 1840s, a plantation on the Elisha Roberts survey in operation. It is not known where the residence was located on the 4428 acres. The history of Elisha Roberts and his daughters Ester Sublett and Margaret McDonald has an incredible history and legacy. 

The Roberts and Sublett families have early Texas history connections in Texas independence. Ester Sublett is shown in 1860 U.S. Federal Census records as residing in San Augustine, San Augustine County, Texas, with her three sons, Franklin, Phillip A. (Jr.) and Henry W. She has a property value in that county of and a personal property value of $35,940. 

The 1860 Federal Slave Schedule for San Augustine County shows Mrs. Sublett as owning 22 slaves at that time. She had inherited 23 slaves from her father’s estate in the 1850s. 

The U.S. Federal Census of 1860 for Trinity County reveals that F.B. (Franklin Bolivar) Sublett, age 30, declared he was a “Planter” with a real estate value of $80,000, and a personal estate value of $90,000. In the same household is shown: J.V. (Josephus) Brooks, Farmer, age 23, also with a personal property value of $6,000, E.J. Sublet (Ester Jane), age 47, P.A. Sublett (Phillip, age 18, and H.W. Sublett, age 15). 

The 1860 US Federal Slave Schedule for Trinity County shows F.B. Sublett enumerated as owning 113 slaves in Trinity County and is the largest slave owner in the county. Josephus (Joseph) Brooks was an overseer for the Sublett plantation from about 1859 through about 1861. 

In his account of the plantation he mentions Mrs. Sublett visiting the plantation several times. Franklin Bolivar Sublett’s dies in 1866 and in 1870, Ester Sublett leases the property to her next oldest son Phillip for $1,000 in gold coin, for a period of one year. 

It was this Phillip A. Sublett, Jr. who shot John Wesley Hardin in Trinity in 1872, and he too dies as a young man in 1873. 

In June of 1877, Ester Sublett sells her 1,107 acres out of the Elisha Roberts Survey to Sam T. Robb, longtime resident of Trinity County. 

In 1880, Mr. Robb sells a 200-acre parcel of that same land to John Henley Hill. 

Compiled by Susanne Waller of the Trinity County Historical Commission.

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Board modifies break policy

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TRINITY — The Trinity ISD School Board modified its restroom policies after parent complained the existing ones were too strict.

Superintendent John Kaufman said the district received a complaint last month from a parent stating that we were unreasonable, so the board directed us to review our policy.

“We did want kids to spend more time in class, and there were some issues with students spending more time in the restroom,” he said.

The modifications are broken down by grades and required only slight changes. The changes were approved at the regular school board meeting on Jan. 24.

Most significantly, instead of wearing a vest, students will carry a wooden pass.

In a separate matter, the board made changes to its reopening plan based on recent recommendations from the CDC and other agencies.

Kaufman said that adults who have confirmed positive for COVID will only have to stay out five days and can return if they have no fever or their symptoms improve. He said it doesn’t require a confirmed negative test.

Students under 18 years of age still have to stay out 10 days.

In other business, the board:

•approved the order of election;

•tabled allowing homeschoolers to participate in extracurricular activities;

•purchased a 72-passenger bus and a 30-passenger activity bus at a combined cost of $184,000. The new vehicles are equipped with seat belts, safety cameras and AC; and

•accepted the FY 2021 audit, which was returned with an unqualified opinion.

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Ordinance receives pushback

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groveton texas city limits 250By Tony Farkas
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GROVETON — The Groveton City Council’s efforts to enact permits and regulations for buildings met with resistance at a recent meeting.

At the regular meeting on Jan. 24, council members were face with a full house of city residents, all of whom felt the proposed ordinances for building codes and inspections, as well as permit requirements, were out of touch with the needs of the community.

Complaints ranged from permitting fees being too exorbitant, to the lack of qualified building inspectors in the area, to the requirement of licensed contractors to perform work, and even the lack of information provided by the city.

David Robison said the city took too big of a bite at the ordinance, and didn’t think through the details.

“This is a very dismal set of ordinances for the city,” Robison said. “This will stifle growth and will harm people. It’s one of the worst things to happen here in a long time.

Robison said there are no licensed trades in the area — no master plumbers, no master electricians; there is no zoning, which is required by the ordinance; and there are no code enforcement officers, or anyone with that kind of training.

This ordinance calls for contractors, but there is no mechanism in place to authorize them; there are no inspectors on staff, so when a water heater goes out, it could be days without water before a contracted inspector will show up. 

“You have criminalized replacing your water heater,” he said. “It is a Class C misdemeanor to work on your own house under penalty of a $500 fine and a criminal charge on your record.”

Robison said the ordinances have inadequate definitions throughout, and since they mention health and safety and not specifically building codes, they could be applied retroactively to all structures in the city.

“I think you need to do this incrementally,” he said. “If you take this slowly, it will be much better.”

Mike Due, a local preacher and cabinet maker, said that as he reads the ordinances, it’s onerous lawmaking and against the spirit of independence and cleanup and “let’s make life better” the town.

“I love this community; if you want to talk about the original ‘git r done,’ most folks can fix things in their homes,” Due said. “We are fiercely independent; but everything we can do for ourselves, according to what I read, I will have to get a permit for, even to paint my bedroom inside my house.”

Due said that it was expensive and required a lot of help to renovate the building for his business; if the information in the ordinance was correct, he would have wasted all that because the new law would put him out of business.

“There is no way I could afford to make reparations according to this code,” he said. “Why would you charge us to do (these things)? If you do, then people won’t do them, and the city will continue to run down.”

Glenn Hammond, Groveton fire chief and landlord, said if the city enacts the ordinance, then he will in turn have to charge more for his rentals, which will cause hardship for people, especially those on fixed income.

“If this goes into effect, I’ll have to sell my houses, and who will want to buy them?” he asked.

Carla monk said that she needed to get a leak fixed, and the cost of getting a plumber from Lufkin was going to cost $254 simply for travel, as well as whatever costs for repairs and labor. She called a friend who fixed it in 5 minutes by tightening a screw, and questioned if that made any sense.

“People on fixed incomes cannot afford the cost of repairs, much less permit and inspection fees on top of that,” she said.

Mayor Tommy Walton said that no one on the council is here to damage the city, but none of us want people burning their houses down.

“We want to bring our 2008 standards up to 2018, not the most current, but more current,” he said.

Walton said they city is required by law to do inspections, and did not understand why there were problems with the council seeking to enact ordinances, and was told that the costs and the need for city permission were the problems.

“I don’t want us to be a police state, but I want us to have reasonably current ordinances,” he said. “There is nothing that is engraved in stone; we can do anything within reason.”

He also said he resents that no one contacted the city for any clarifications, and instead relies on gossip and misinformation.

“We have said repeatedly that the ordinances will be modified,” he said. “We know there will be exceptions, and we’ll deal with that when we come to it.”

Council member Joe Don Kennedy recommended tabling the measure so it can be amended to something that is more presentable.

Council members Autumn Dial and Ralph Bennett were picked to begin working on the ordinances, which will be placed on next month’s agenda.

In other business, the council:

•approved a $6,273.90 payment to Inframark for month water maintenance;

•approved an audit report from Todd, Hamaker and Johnson LLP;

•discussed the annual report from Fire Chief Glenn Hammond;

•approved an order for a general election for May 7; and

•approved April 26-27 as 12-hour voting days for the city elections.

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Jail problems mount for county

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Trinity Countyseal 200By Tony Farkas
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GROVETON — The dilapidated jail is becoming worse, and county officials were told by Sheriff Woody Wallace that the county is running out of options.

“We’re out of compliance. We have a liability issue,” Wallace said. “If we’re found out of compliance, that opens up a whole lot of lawsuits against us.

“It’s a sinking ship,” he said.

Wallace said he has been in contact with state agencies, and has been told the county is not abiding by jail standards, and essentially, it has 90 days to get it fixed.

“We’ve had other issues,” he said. “With overcrowding, multiple times we’ve had to keep more people that we’re allowed to in that jail, because other jails are not taking inmates because they’re shut down over COVID. Last week, there was a problem with a sewage line at the jail, and raw sewage leaked out. then there was another backup that flooded the dispatch area and sewage started backing up in the sink.”

County Attorney Colton Hay said that in his discussions with the state, it has come to light that while the Trinity County Jail has been grandfathered in to hold prisoners, it is currently barely meeting standards. 

Wallace said he recommends building a temporary structure while waiting for the Jail Commission to come up with a plan for a new facility, but is willing to accept any ideas.

“We can build any temporary structure we want, as long as we can prove we can keep them there,” he said. “We can use COVID money because it’s an emergency situation. We can build a dormitory structure, and it will allow us to pull inmates out of that and other jails, and we can use it for three years.”

Wallace cautioned that in addition to the facility, five full-time employees will have to be hired to run it. He also said that the state said there needs to be action on a new jail.

County Commissioner Neal Smith said he would prefer to purchase and renovate an existing structure to not spend county money on property not owned by the county.

Wallace will begin looking for existing structures to build a temporary structure, and present options at the next county meeting. However, he stressed that the county must build a new permanent facility, as the temporary facility is a one-time deal.

Wallace also was directed to look at relocating the dispatch office.

In a related matter, the county will begin using the web-based Nixle for public information purposes for county residents.

In other business, the court:

• approved official bonds for Lenore Martinez and Molly Ware;

• approved personnel action forms;

• approved seeking bids for a 2006 Ford F-150 pickup truck the county has for sale; and

• tabled a request from the Apple Springs VFD seeking $7,500 for repairs.

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Candidates, voters get cozy

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Candidates and constituents mingle during a Republican Party candidate forum held Thursday at the Trinity County Courthouse in Groveton. Photo by Tony Farkas/TCNSCandidates and constituents mingle during a Republican Party candidate forum held Thursday at the Trinity County Courthouse in Groveton. Photo by Tony Farkas/TCNS

By Tony Farkas
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GROVETON — Republican candidates for Trinity County positions stumped at the first of three forums presented by the Trinity County Republican Party.

GOP Party Chairman Scott Womack said these events are done during election cycles to get the word out to the people about the candidates.

“One of the most important things we have in this country is the right to vote and to elect our representatives,” Womack said. “Sometimes that’s taken for granted by people just not getting involved.”

Womack said voters can see the candidates, listen to them speak and to make a decision based on that and their own research.

“It helps them find the best candidate that represents the values of themselves and the Republican Party,” he said. “This is done during the primary election cycle every two years.”

Two more meetings are scheduled; the next is at 6 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Centerville school, and then at 6 p.m. Feb. 8 at Trinity Café in Trinity. 

“Hopefully this will get the candidates enough exposure, and the people enough information,” he said.

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