CANA, Va. — “This is the sorriest piece of ground I ever saw. You could never make a living here,” said W.C. Hill about the two acres in Cana, Virginia, which he would later buy and which would support him and five generations of his family for 90 years and counting.
Hill’s Shoes on Fancy Gap Road in Cana, Virginia, is celebrating its 90th anniversary on Friday and Saturday and honoring the day in 1927 when W.C. Hill decided to take a chance on that piece of “galleded land” as his father Wiley Hill called it. Hill’s father suggested to him that he “put a store on it, let your wife run it and you can farm,” as the story is told by Todd Hill, W.C. Hill’s grandson and current general manager of Hill’s Shoes.
Many of the stories of the store’s history can be heard in W.C. Hill’s own words on the store’s website, (www.hillsshoes.com). At the 50th anniversary of the store in 1977, W.C. Hill acquired a cassette recorder and made numerous recordings of the history of his family’s business venture, to the great embarrassment of then-14-year-old Todd Hill.
He has since come around and placed the digitized recordings on the website for everybody to hear.
Stories of the long-ago opening of the store are punctuated by the loud ringing of the bell which announced that a customer wanted some gasoline out front. For Hill’s Shoes was not always a shoe store though there have always been shoes. For most of its history (until 1988), it was a general store that sold, in addition to shoes, groceries, meats, fertilizer, gasoline, tires and hardware. At one point, there was a deli and a bakery. It was possible to fill up with gas, be fitted for a pair of shoes and buy a birthday cake, all in one stop.
W.C. Hill’s descendants have grown up in the store. Todd Hill said he was raised in a crib in the store; when he was released from it, he loved nothing more than playing in the aisles and throwing jars of jelly in the air to see them break on the concrete floors. Bottles of Prell shampoo also made a lovely splash.
“Daddy beat me out of that bad habit,” he recalled.
Todd Hill got his start in the family business, just as his father before him had done, by pumping gas, starting when he was 10. His dad, Oscar Hill, said that he started pumping gas when he was 6 or 7. He remembers being so small that he had to climb up on the running boards of trucks and tap on the driver’s windows to get their attention and see what they wanted.
Hill children still work in the store at an early age even though there is no longer any gas to pump. Todd Hill’s daughters started out as bathroom cleanliness supervisors and his 2-year-old granddaughter Mika is already checking customer’s shoes for proper fit.
Mika is following in the footsteps of her mother, Kyla Hill Troutman, and her grandfather, who are both certified pedorthists. Pedorthists are professionals who have specialized training to modify footwear and employ supportive devices to address conditions which affect the feet and lower limbs. Todd Hill says he has helped many people with plantar fasciitis and diabetes.
It was Todd Hill who said in 1988, when he and his wife were wanting to start a family and his father was wanting to spend more time as a minister, that he could sell groceries or he could sell shoes. But he couldn’t do both. The razor-thin margins of the grocery business helped make the decision.
“That’s not a level playing field,” he said. So the groceries were sold off, the bakery and deli were closed and Hill’s General Store became Hill’s Shoes, though the legal name of the business is still Hill’s General Store in deference to the legacy of W.C. Hill.
On Friday and Saturday, that legacy will be on full view. Cokes will be sold at 1927 prices, for five cents. They will offer a wide selection of $90 shoes in honor of ninety years in business and there will be $19.27 shoes in honor of the year it all started.
Delores Hill, Todd Hill’s wife and bookkeeper for the store since marrying Todd, stressed that the shoes are 19 dollars and 27 cents, not the price they were in 1927. W. C. Hill’s first of many ledger books for the store show that two of the early pairs of shoes he sold in 1927 were sold to Martin Dowell for $2.60 and $2.75. Mr. Dowell also purchased a 10-cent package of snuff and 75 cents worth of socks. No one knows how many socks.
“Probably a lot of socks,” Delores calculated.
At the conclusion of the weekend’s festivities, a drawing will be held to give away $2,000 in merchandise. It’s not necessary to be present to win. On both Friday and Saturday, there will be drawings on the hour for other prizes. For those, it is necessary to be present to win.
“Of course, we’d like to sell a ton of shoes,” says Todd Hill of the 90th anniversary event. “But this is mainly to thank the people who have supported us for 90 years. They trusted us with their money. It’s humbling, and we appreciate that. It has allowed us to watch our kids grow up.”
Would Oscar Hill have done anything differently, given the gift of hindsight? “No,” he said. “It has been an interesting experience. I’m pretty happy with what I do.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.