The Eccentric Merchant from New Ipswich New Hampshire: Jabez Hills (1788-1871)

Jabez Hills led a seemingly normal life until his later years, when he became known as “Jabez the Hermit,” and was considered by some to be a somewhat odd, miserly recluse. This business-savy man led a productive, generous life and it is sad that he might be remembered only by his seeming later eccentricities.

“Bellows Falls: The Square. Jabez Hill,” Rockingham Library Historic Photograph Collection, accessed December 28, 2018,

Jabez Hills was born in New Ipswich, New Hampshire in 1788, son and 9th child of David & Hannah (Fales) Hills. In 1805, at the age of 17, he moved to Bellows Falls, Vermont remaining there for the rest of his life.

He first worked there as a clerk in a country store (Hall & Green) .  He was postmaster of Bellows Falls for twenty years and seemed to perform his work quite capably.  He remained single, and invested his money in real estate.

He owned property and lived at the Bellows Falls Square. Of his renters and buyers he required payment in gold coin rather than paper money.   When he died in 1871 he was considered eccentric, and he left his estate to a niece.  It would appear that the writer of the following biographical story of Jabez Hills had a prejudice against him, or enjoyed writing sensational news stories.  Did he purposefully become a recluse, or did the bullying and negative attitudes of his community shape his behavior.  You decide.

Old Postcard of 44 Steps in Bellows Falls, one of the boundaries of Jabez Hill’s properties in The Square.

The Connecticut River Valley in Southern Vermont and New Hampshire, Historical Sketches by Lyman S. Hayes, 1920 presents a lengthy story about Jabez Hills.  There is no attribution in this volume.  JABEZ HILLS–THE MOST ECCENTRIC CHARACTER IN THE HISTORY OF BELLOWS FALLS.  If any person had asked the business men of Bellows Falls of 60 years or more ago who was the most eccentric person, or interesting character of the town, without doubt the response would have been unanimously “Jabez Hills.” He died September 16, 1871 at 83 years of age, in an old forlorn room of what was then known as the “Pettis” block on the west side of the Square where is now the building occupied by Goodnow, Jewett & Pillsbury store. Mr. Hills had owned that building over 40 years and it was replaced by the present block in 1899. He never married, and during his entire life he had evinced a singularly miserly instinct, approaching greed, for money getting that in his later years became a mania, and he was often spoken of as of unsound mind.

He lived the life of a recluse, having few friends or intimate acquaintances. Those who looked over his room after his death found on top of an old cupboard a tin teapot which contained about $700 in gold. Nothing else in the room was of value, it being filled largely with old tin pans that contained old rusty nails and bits of iron which he had picked up about town. His bed, which was nothing but rags, was of that nature that demanded that it be buried immediately in the bank behind the block.

A will was found containing only a dozen lines, which bequeathed his entire estate to a niece, Mrs. Harriet H. Bingham, of Boston, whose son-in-law, Hales W. Suter, administered upon it until his death, and a portion is still owned by his descendants. That portion is now the Goodnow block, and the frame buildings leased to S.j. Cray. When Mr. Hills died he owned everything on the West side of the Square from the Trust Company’s block to the School Street stairs, the location of the present Corner Drug Store, the old paper mill site with its valuable water power rights, and other property, all which he had accumulated by foreclosures of mortgages. He never purchased but one piece of real estate, although he owned many at his death. He never sold one, the nearest to it being when he signed a lease of his water rights “under the hill” to Hon. William A. Russell, April 15, 1869, the beginning of the important development of the water power, and the starting of the Fall Mountain Paper Company, and other important manufacturing industries of Bellows Falls. He had gold in the bank amounting to $545 and currency $338, and other personal property amounting to $4,637, the total of his real estate and personal property being $20,537.32 as appraised at that time. Probably he held more property than any other man here in his day.

Mr. Hills was born in New Ipswich, N.H. in 1788, and came to Bellows Falls in 1805. He was employed in the country store of Hall & Green, in a frame building standing where Union Block now does, on the east side of the Square. The Mr. Green was the father of Edward H. Green, the husband of Hetty Green of later years. For many years, Mr. Hills wore an English queue and knee buckles, as many Americans then did. When Quartus Morgan, the first postmaster of Bellows Falls died, he was appointed to succeed him and he held the office 20 years, keeping it in the Hall & Green Store. After 1830 he never had any business except to tend his hay scales, which were in the Square in front of where the bank block is now, and to accumulate money. He lived entirely alone and upon crackers and bread and molasses, purchasing them in large quantities and keeping them in his one room. He dressed like a beggar, had a peculiar stooping posture and for the last 20 years of his life wore the same old stove pipe hat, greasy, battered and worn beyond any semblance of shape.

In his old building where he lived was a basement used as a bakery, and in it an immense brick oven. In this old residents of years ago told the writer they had seen his bed and knew that he slept in the oven in cold weather. In his room in the second story of the building, in the southwest corner, he had a small wood stove in which he used to burn wood four feet long, pushing the sticks in as they burned off. Over this he would crouch and one spring when he came out it was found that his shins were burned from the ankles to the knees from sitting day after day so near the stove. Before he was 60 years old he, at times, would “dress up a little” having a blue coat with brass buttons with his then new beaver hat, but he was never guilty of such a sin later in life.

With only two men did he ever in his later life approach intimacy: John Sawtelle, the village cooper, whose shop was in the basement of his dwelling that stood on Westminster Street where the “Barry Block” now owned by Theodore Scurtelis, stands; and John Billing, the village miller, and father of Mrs. Charles W. Butterfield.

It was common knowledge that for many years he started out of the village late in March, with his trunk containing his vauables and old clothes loaded on the center of two long poles. He would take up the front end of them, dragging the rear ends on the ground, and go across the river into New Hampshire for a few weeks to avoid taxation. The writer was told this by citizens who saw him on these pilgrimages. One year his trunk was found high up on Mount Kilburn and turned over to the Walpole authorities.

Late in life he rarely spoke to anyone on the street. He was pleasant to those who befriended him, but petulant and cross to those who made fun of, or laughed at him. Naturally a certain class of boys picked upon him and shied sticks and old boots at him, leading to many encounters and laughable, but pitiful situations. Old residents used to tell many stories of Mr. Hills’ oddities and almost unheard-of eccentricities, which fully justifies the statement that no business man of Bellows Falls ever exhibited so many marked and singular characteristics as he.

The lines of ancestry of Jabez Hills from Joseph who came from England in the “Susan & Ellen” in 1638, one of the first Speakers of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the subject of this sketch being of the 6th generation from him. [His genealogy compiled by the blog editor follows].

*ADDITIONAL READING**

Photographs: Bellows Falls Square

Old postcard showing view of New Ipswich NH circa 1910.

===PARTIAL GENEALOGY OF JABEZ HILLS====

David-5 Hills, (Jabez-4, Samuel-3, Joseph-2, Joseph-1) b. 24 Jan 1736 at at Wrentham MA, d. 1815 in New Ipswich NH; resided Ipswich NH where he was 30 years a merchant. He m1) Hannah Fales, b. 16 Apr 1745, d. 12 Sep 1777. Buried Hill Cemetery New Ipswich NH. He m2d) Sarah Manning. She b 14 June 1755, d. 23 Aug 1802 according to a bible record. He m3d) widow Abigail (Wheelock) Smith who was b. 1744 and d. 1815 [From “The Genealogical and Biographical History of the Manning Families of New England and their descendants”] [Also information found in “Genealogical Data Relating to the Ancestry and Descendants of William Hills, the English Emigrant ….”]
—————–
HILLS Genealogy in History of New Ipswich NH
—————–
Children of David & Hannah (Fales) Hills:
1. Martha Hills, b. 27 Dec 1772 d –. She m. 25 Feb 1801 William Hall of Rockingham VT. Five children.
2. Mary Hills b. 26 Jan 1774 d 23 Oct 1806. She m. 17 Nov 1799 Noah Bartlett.
3. Hannah Hills, b. 13 May 1796 John B. Wheeler of Oxford. Five children of whom eldest was John, president of the University of Vermont.
4. Meletiah/Meltiah Hills b 24 Oct 1776 d 13 Aug 1778.
Children of David & Sarah (Manning) Hills:
5. Sarah Hills, b 15 Dec 1778, d. 18 Dec 1819. She m. 9 March 1815 to William Hall Jr. of Rockingham VT as his 2nd wife.
6. John Fales Hills, b 22 July 1780. He succeeded his father as a merchant; m1) Abigail Fox; m2d) Esther Arnold, son Arnold Hills of Westminster VT. His daughter Harriet married Osmar Abner Bingham, inherited the estate of her uncle Jabez Hills.
See his descendants.
7. David Hills, b. 19 Oct 1781 New Ipswich NH, d. 2 April 1789; buried Hill Cemetery, New Ipswich NH
8. Meletiah II, b. 3 July 1783; d. 13 Jan 1784.
7. Susannah “Susan” Hills, b. 21 Dec 1784, d. 16 Sep 1864. Ipswich history says unmarried, Hills genealogy says ” m. — Colby.”
9. +Jabez Hills, b 1788 New Ipswich NH; d 6 Sep 1871, unmarried. He went to Rockingham VT (Bellows Falls section) as a clerk with his brother-in-law William Hall and manifested the business abilities of his father and brother sufficiently to accumulate a considerable property which he employed in private banking. But in other matters he was peculiar and exceedingly unsocial, being known as “Jabez, the Hermit.” [This story is about him, see above].
10. Samuel Hills, b 15 Oct 1789, d. 9 Aug 1791, age 1, buried Hill Cemetery, New Ipswich NH

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4 Responses to The Eccentric Merchant from New Ipswich New Hampshire: Jabez Hills (1788-1871)

  1. Given the length of time that had elapsed between the events and Hayes’ account of them, I’d say there’s some embellishment happening, both on the part of his sources and in his relaying of the information he found.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Liz, first thank you for reading my blog and commenting. I have always enjoyed eccentric people, New Hampshire used to have many. But in our current day and age there is such pressure to all be alike. No doubt the poor treatment Jabez received in his older years influenced his behavior. It would be sad if he was only remembered for that, and not for the good he brought his community, and his family. I hope in a small way I was able to balance those scales of opinion in his favor.

  2. This was an interesting article about Jabez. It is fun to read about the eccentric characters from the past. Thank you for sharing.

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