Jonah Dills

Jonah Dills was an early developer in the area. Dills is credited for founding the Sylva Fire Department. He managed the county fair held at the old fairgrounds, now Mark Watson Park.

After mentioning Jonah Dills, an early developer who owned a large amount of property in the area around St. Mary’s Catholic Church, in two recent columns, I find I’m not ready to let go of his life and what it meant to Sylva just yet.

Though he’d been dead for more than 30 years by the time I arrived in The Herald newsroom, references to Dills were frequent during my years there. Several times during Sylva town board meetings, references were made to plats of subdivisions he’d laid out during the 1920s. In 1999, as the Sylva Fire Department geared up for its centennial celebration, Dills was credited as the SFD’s founder; his daughter, Willa Mae Dills Scroggs, who died in 2002, was the fire truck parade’s grand marshal.

I spoke with Willa Mae on several occasions regarding town history, and her father figured prominently in those conversations.

Allen Jonah Dills, who married Cora Henson, was the son of Allen Bartlett and Josephine Brendle Dills. Jonah Dills documented his family history in the road names in the neighborhood around the old Chamber of Commerce office (now the Tourism Development Authority office), where we find Josephine, Bartlett and Brendle streets. Storybook Lane was called Dills Street until the 9-1-1 road-naming in the mid-1990s decreed it too similar to nearby Dills Cove and mandated the name change.

Willa Mae had a picture, taken in the early 1900s, of a group of young people (including her parents before they married) standing on a frozen Scotts Creek in the vicinity of the old Cogdill Motors. Temperatures were so cold that year, her parents had told her, that the ice was 18 inches thick and town folks skated on the frozen creek for 11 weeks.

She told me that her father, who was always called “Jonah,” was christened Allen Elias Dills after his father and grandfather, Elias Brendle, but young Allen had five older sisters who teased him about being such a big boy.

“They joked that if he had been Jonah he would have swallowed the whale instead of the whale swallowing him, and they called him ‘Jonah,’” Willa Mae said.

The nickname stuck, and when he was old enough, her father legally changed his name to Allen Jonah Dills.

Another funny story she told was about her grandparents’ wedding.

“My great-grandfather was a preacher, and he used to lead the longest prayers,” she told me. “He didn’t like the idea of his daughter Josephine marrying my grandfather, Allen Dills. So one night during a prayer, Allen and Josephine eloped. The family always joked that they probably got back before he finished the prayer!”

Her father always said that must have been a true story because he’d heard his grandfather pray.

Jonah Dills’ real estate office was next to what was then The Paris, a clothing store, and is now Sylva Market and Signature Brew

It was on the edge of the Dills’ garden, for the family at that time lived right on Main Street in the house built by Gen. E.R. Hampton, the man credited with founding Sylva and giving the town its name. The Hampton house was located where Livingston Kelley now has his frame shop. Its front yard extended to the Main Street/Mill Street intersection, and there was a barn below the house at the end of the railroad trestle.

Dills became a real estate agent because an illness caused him to need crutches, meaning he had to choose a career that didn’t involve physical labor. He also sold insurance and was secretary of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce for 20 years. He managed the county fair that was held annually at the old fairgrounds, now Mark Watson Park, and in 1899 organized the bucket brigade that became the Sylva Fire Department. He was chairman of the local selective services board during World War I and was active in First Baptist Church, serving as Sunday school secretary for more than 50 years; he was a deacon and trustee at the time of his 1961 death.

Jonah Dills had a brick building constructed on the front lawn of their Main Street house that was built from brick from a smokestack torn down at the tannery.

It’s still standing and is part of the old Western Auto store. Dills sold the building to J.S. Higdon, and it became Higdon’s Ford Motor Co.

In 1919 the Dills family and the Higdons traded houses, with the Higdons moving to the old Hampton house on Main Street and the Dills moving to what would become Dills Cove.

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.