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VA Tech Alumnus Spotlights Local History Using Local Mail

On a warm summer day in 1966, 7-year-old Bob Hill met his dad, long-time Blacksburg postal carrier Robert “Rip” Hill Sr., along his afternoon mail route. The two conversed about their day, neighborhood news, and route logistics. During these routine but precious walks, Bob Hill learned important lessons in public relations and geography.

Rip Hill, with his official uniform and mail bag, was one of two original walking mail carriers in town. He sold stamps, talked with residents about family news and current events, and made sure the correspondence from loved ones and a few bills were promptly delivered. Bob Hill said these walks weren’t just about time with dad and summertime exercise — they sparked his interest in the history and impact of the postal service on the region and its people.

“Besides getting some good exercise, I later realized I was learning communication and organizational skills, geography, and math,” said Hill, who graduated in 1982 with a degree in biology and is the author of “The New River Mail: A Postal and Social History of Virginia’s Montgomery, Pulaski, and Giles Counties.”

Treasure found

A year later, when his dad showed Hill a box of century-old letters found in the family’s home from the previous owners, he was hooked. The letters displayed old stamps and postmarks and included tidbits of written first-hand stories of regional history.

After high school, he had to set aside his interests to pursue a Virginia Tech biology degree and later a Master of Science and Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia. Upon graduation, Hill practiced large animal medicine in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for 30 years.

“During that time, I began to collect local Montgomery, Giles, and Pulaski envelopes and old letters as tangible pieces of history and genealogy,” said Hill. “I began to realize that these letters tell a story through postal markings and social perspective that would be interesting and fresh.”

History revealed

Hill began researching and writing as a weekend project about eight years ago. After his retirement in 2020, he was able to finish the book in two years. Throughout his research process, he delved into University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech.

The 466 pages of “The New River Mail: A Postal and Social History of Virginia’s Montgomery, Pulaski, and Giles Counties” contain photographs, maps, and images of stamps, letters, and postal markings that tell their own stories. Some of those are surprising.

“Among many was the fact that the Confederate government used boats, specifically batteau, on the New River for troop movements and supplies. The batteau were long and relatively narrow tiller craft that could carry up to 12 tons of freight, including cannon,” said Hill. “During 1862-1863, the government blasted rocks and boulders in the New River from Radford to Narrows to make a more navigable supply line as the roads were typically in poor condition.”

As a local history buff, Hill said Special Collections and University Archives is a wonderful resource for research and reminiscing.

“The photographs and maps enhance and enlarge the understanding of local history and events,” said Hill. “After paying usage fees to other databases for images used in the book, I think it’s commendable that Special Collections does not extract a fee for the use of its resources. Accordingly, careful attribution is required. It’s a great resource that exemplifies the Hokie motto, Ut Prosim.”

Postal service helped expand a nation

“In the early days, each settlement boasted a post office, which gave the inhabitants an identity beyond their remote circumstances,” said Hill. “Correspondence among family members eased the separation and encouraged new settlement as migration expanded westward. In particular, the safe and consistent crossing of the New River at Ingles Ferry was key to regional and national expansion.”

Learning first-hand through the letters of people living their lives during the country’s both calm and tumultuous times adds more than dates, facts, and names to the historical record.

“Their own words add passion, feeling, and nuances to the known framework of our accepted historical accounts,” said Hill. “The neat thing is, old letters are still being uncovered in attics and archives and brought to light.”

– Ann Brown

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