Friday, August 21, 2009

Tribute to Deadwood's Mattie Hill Including Reprint of Published History of Mattie

Mattie Hill

Site Author Dick Dunwiddie

Guest Author Lilah Morton Pengra




Hartshorn College early campus on the Bowe Plantation in Virginia. Mattie Hill attended this college.

Update: I just found the following 1933 Deadwood Plat of what I believe is Mattie’s Deadwood property. This makes sense. When Mattie walked over the hill at the top end of Wabash Street, she was walking on her own property! The same goes for the Pluma side of her gulch access.

Click on all pictures and links for larger view


My introduction:

Note of Revision: Mattie's full name is corrected to show her surname as Champ with noted reason. November 2009 - DickD

Mattie’s proper name was Matilda Champ Hill. Note: In genealogy researched documents, Matilda’s surname is shown as “Champ” but her grandson reports that she usually gave her surname as “Champion”. She was born in 1870 as a freeborn African- American. She was an avid early learner. She attended a noted Washington, DC, seminary and completed college for a full education. She moved to western South Dakota in 1900 and became a cook and child nurse for a Fort Meade couple. In 1902, she married Isaac A. Hill in a church in Pluma. Isaac died in 1937, but Mattie continued to work as a cook and lived her life in their quiet Deadwood home. She raised their own two children and two adopted children, and later she also raised a grandson named Clifford Melrose whom I have never met.

I believe that both Clifford and I visited and helped Mrs. Peck who lived a 37 Charles Street which was close to the Open Air Market. Her engineer husband was murdered with a tire pump bomb in their garage. She was a wonderful person but sure had a sad life. The murder was never solved.

My Mattie Tribute:

My Mattie Hill Tribute starts in the mid-1940s. She frequently walked through my Deadwood neighborhood. Our Wabash Street was a shortcut to Mattie’s home which was over the hill and down in her gulch. She frequently passed Jim Veitl, Dale Allen, and me as we played at dumb kid and dog stuff. She was always friendly and would stop and say something really nice to us and she also liked Jim’s dog Nugget! She also stopped at the Veitl's house and had long talks with Albert and wife Nina. Both my folks worked so were not home during the day. Allens lived on Rodenhaus street which was up another gulch. Old Mr. Fagen the Blacksmith was usually too busy in his shed to notice the neighborhood activities. The Parker House at the foot of Wabash was considered haunted by night and was not scary during the daylight.

In the summers, Mattie raised a large garden and had Rhode Island Red chickens. She sold produce and eggs to the Open Air Market next to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Just think of Mattie and Clifford hand carrying their produce and eggs to the market. It was a long walk no matter which path they took.

Mattie is shown bottom left. I think Seth Bullock is center rear.
Photo courtesy of the Adams Museum

Mattie posed here with a group picture at Calamity Jane’s burial in 1903. She seemed interested and understood the crude, rough-and-tumble women of the Black Hills like the famous Calamity Jane and Bernice Musekamp (Queen of the Rimrock). Mattie lived a quiet community minded life. In the early 1940s, Bernice started the Pactola Moosecamp Park and Restaurant. For a number of years Mattie cooked with Bernice at Pactola and earned the great food reputation for the Moosecamp Restaurant.

In Mattie’s final years she worked closer to her Deadwood home. She cooked at the Deadwood/Lead golf courses, special events in homes and offered famous pastries. Her fried chicken and cakes were legendary.

Early one summer, I needed part-time work and heard that the Tomahawk Golf Course needed a waiter. I did not have any experience but I drove out anyway. I applied and interviewed with Mattie. She had a no-nonsense bearing and sharp questions. I left feeling I would not get the job. But to my surprise, she called to say she picked me over the others that applied. My first day was not good and afterwards Mattie took me aside and gave me some of her special mentoring suggestions. My next day was much better as I arrived freshly bathed, hair combed, clean clothes, polished shoes, a smile on my face and with a much better attitude.

Mattie ran the kitchen, other help, and servers like fine-tuned major surgery. Everything was planned and went like clockwork. She also took extra time to teach me the art of being a server. She gave me inspections that would make the military proud. I never again knowingly failed her trust or expectations.

The last time I saw her and worked for her was at the Lead Country Club for a private family dinner party hosted by Mr. John Finola, the Lead clothier. At dinner’s end, Mr. Finola called me over and put his arm around me. He politely introduced me to his family members and told everyone he knew my parents and they were fine people. He then slipped $5 into my pocket (big money in those days!!). Mattie stayed in the kitchen but she always commanded respect with her quiet ability, caring, and fine cooking. In this small moment, Mattie let me experience and know a new respect for myself. All during the dinner, I had to keep reminding myself of all the correct ways to serve that Mattie taught me. I passed with flying colors… and so did Mattie!

Mattie Hill was an early mentor in what was my lifetime of a few special mentors. I never forgot her and I always loved her. I wish I would have told her personally when she was living. However, I hoped she suspected because she knew a lot more than most of us. She also took time and taught me how to fry chicken and a large gathering batch secret. So now I am a legend with my own family and friends for fried chicken. Each time I cook, I feel her smiling down at me.


Recently, I decided to write a dhsclassmates’ tribute to Mattie. With little to go on other than her name, I started on my information quest to locate something about Mattie and maybe her history. I had a chance discussion with Ann Stanton who wrote Destination in the Wilderness. Ann put me in touch with Joyce Jefferson who suggested I contact Dr.Lilah Pengra. Well what do you know! Lilah knew Mattie’s life history and wrote about Mattie in her published book Corporals, Cooks, and Cowboys. In addition to fully sharing Mattie’s published material, Lilah put me touch with Mattie’s grandson Clifford Melrose. I had long talks with Clifford and his wife Georgia. The Melroses are wonderful people and were pleased to hear how I felt about Mattie and her effect on my life. We stay in touch and they are awaiting this Mattie tribute.

Mattie is shown below on her front steps. She is holding one of her famous cakes.

Mattie Hill from the Melrose Family Collection


Following is Lilah Morten Pengra’s book part and researched history on Mattie Hill. Lilah graciously let me use this digital media rights (DMR) protected material in order to share the Mattie history with dhsclassmates and friends. Lilah also helped me access the DMR images through the Deadwood Adams Museum and Clifford Melrose. Rose Speirs at the Museum was a great help and I consider her too a friend of the dhsclassmates site.

Thank you Ann Stanton, Joyce Jefferson, Lilah Pengra, Clifford & Georgia Melrose and Rose Speirs . . .

Now Mattie’s tribute, history, and quiet Deadwood life can have a new exposure and understanding. I am able to finally share my Mattie story too! You will gain insight as how she lived her life. You will smile about her practical nature and feel a little sad about the porch light signal to Mr. Halleck. The ending hymn quote is an epitaph Mattie’s life in a few words:


Publishing credit:

Click the following for credit link:


Matilda Champion Hill’s story was partly learned through the loving memories of her grandson, Clifford Melrose. He was born in 1935 and knew her, lived with her during his childhood, and kept in contact with her until her death in 1954. In an interview in 1999 with Joyce Jefferson, Melrose summed up his grandmother as a “grand lady…. She did a lot of things for a lot of people although she didn’t have anything herself.” His memories further showed how she was a hardworking, charitable, intelligent and strong-willed woman.

Matilda Champion was born in 1870 in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Her mother was literate and freeborn, a status that was unusual at that time when, just prior to the Civil War, only 1.9% of the black population of the upper south were free, literate women. She obviously valued education as her daughter not only learned to read and write before entering elementary school but also attended Whalen Seminary and Harshore Memorial College in Washington D. C.

Champion came west in 1900 as a young, single woman working as a cook and child-nurse for a military family stationed at Ft. Meade. At that time, there were two types of domestic employment: “living out” and “living in.” Miss Champion “lived out” which meant that she had her own quarters and controlled her free time, a much more respected type of employment than “living in.” She probably was accorded this status because of her education and trustworthiness.

Isaac A. Hill was born in Tennessee. On the 1900 Federal Census he was living in Lead City, South Dakota in an all-black boarding house operated by Fred Jamison. Other boarders there were T. J. Tyson, William Foster, Albert Mace and Theodore and Thomas Yancey. Theodore Yancey was a boot black, Foster a hod carrier and all the other men were described as day laborers.

In 1902, Isaac and Matilda were married in the church at Pluma. They later bought the church building and the seven acres on which it stood. They converted it into their home. On the 1910 Federal Census, Mr. and Mrs. Hill were living in Pluma with their children, Amy born in 1906; and James born in 1908. They also had two foster children, 4 year-old Paul David and infant Louis.

By 1920 Mr. Hill ranched at a place near Savoy, SD on the Wyoming side. He patented his homestead (T50N, R60W, part of sec. 20, 6th Meridian) in 1916. He died September 6, 1937. Mrs. Hill stayed at their home in town so the children could attend school. On the 1920 census, Kate Reynolds and her son George were boarding with Mrs. Hill. Amy and James were still at home and another foster child, Emil Summers, was with them. Eventually, Mrs. Hill also fostered Emil’s half-brother, Frank Lockhart. Her foster child Paul David died when he was 12. According to Melrose, his grandmother also fostered a child named Carl Wright. Melrose reminisced, “My grandmother said there never would be a Black child in the state of South Dakota that didn’t have a home.”

Mrs. Hill raised a large garden and a flock of 50 Rhode Island Reds every summer. She sold produce and eggs at an open-air market in Deadwood. She also made her own soap and kept a spotless house. Melrose said that his grandmother believed that “if she didn’t boil it, it wasn’t clean. Knees and overalls had to be white. If it wasn’t white, it wasn’t clean.” She also worked during this time as a master cook. In the summers she cooked at various resorts or clubs, including Pactola and Tomahawk Country Club. Later she worked in private homes for special events. The cookbook she used was partially burned in a fire but was still in the personal collection of Melrose.

Melrose recalled that when he was young she would occasionally show him the gifts that people had given her. They were stored away in a closet, not because of their monetary value, but because of a value of a different sort: as symbols of respect from others. She also hosted 4th of July and Thanksgiving celebrations at their home attended by the Kerchervals, Baileys, Banks, officers and many African American families from all over the Hills. Her community-mindedness meant that when he was a child of 8 or 9, Melrose was sent to do errands for people in the neighborhood, such as Kate Reynolds and the elderly white woman, Clara Perkins.

Melrose characterized his grandmother as “a very intelligent woman…. We got the Chicago Defender and the Denver Post. I gained more knowledge from her than from anybody…as they say today, ‘She had it going on in all fields.’ She wouldn’t speak unless she was called on to speak and then she would research before she did speak.” His most enduring memory of her was her seated on the front porch in her rocking chair, reading the Bible with her magnifying glass. He described how she’d hide the magnifying glass under her apron and then she’d say, “Boy come here. What does that say?’ And you’d read the scripture. ‘What?’ And you’d read it again. She was trying to get that point across to you. You had to read it. Then you’d go back and sit in a chair and you’d see her pull that magnifying glass out and she’d go back to reading the Bible.”

She was a strong-willed woman and a big woman, “with a lot of moxie,” Melrose said. “She had a very good sense of humor. But it was kind of one-way. She said something and everybody better laugh!” She was a strict disciplinarian but only had to punish him once – when he ate all the soft insides out of a newly-baked loaf of bread but left the empty crust in place.

In her final years, the family tried to convince her to move to be with them in Seattle or Chicago. However, she preferred to live on her own, in the home she had always maintained, without charity from the state or from friends and family. She had “a signal with Mr. Halleck. . .if her light wasn’t on at night or if it was on in the daytime, something was wrong.” Mr. Halleck found her where she had fallen when she died of a stroke. The refrain from one of the hymns sung at Matilda Hill’s funeral in 1954 was a fitting epitaph for her life:

When I’ve come to the end of my journey
Weary of life and the battle is won
Carrying the staff and cross of redemption




Very nice and very thoughtful of you to do this.

Georgia and Clifford--August 22, 2009


I asked Judi what she recalled and she related the following. Obviously Judi remembers some specifics better than I. She was a really nice lady that took very good care of us when our parents traveled!!!! It’s funny, when Judi said she remembered her voice, so do I.

Dave Klein

From: Judi Klein Fitzgerald

I just remember her as loving and respecting me, and also you. I remember her calling me Miss Judi and you Master David. I remember her eating in the closet of the back room - she would not eat at the dinner table with us. That always upset me, as I didn't want her to think of herself as less than anyone else. So I would try to pull the closet door open to get her to come out and she would pull it shut from the inside. We had major tugs of war with that door. I remember her smoking her corncob pipe. She gave me a corncob pipe! I remember her walking down Main Street from our house in the street rather than on the sidewalk - snow and shine. I remember her sparkling white butcher's apron and her curly hair. I remember her kind smile and her laugh. I remember her spotlessly clean house and her rocking chair and her voice. But mostly I just remember her and that she loved me and I loved her.

Dave and Judi-- August 22, 2009


I can't express how much I enjoyed the Mrs. Hill tribute and the part about Pops sign.
I remember Mrs. Hill walking by our place everyday. My mother went out to the street and talked to her and I listened.

I thought she cooked at Louie's Chicken Hut at that time. I didn't realize how well known she was in town. It would be great if we could talk to her now!!

I haven't thought about Nugget for a long time, but I do remember he would stand an wait for you to throw a rock so he could retrieve it and drop it at your feet for another throw. I have many great memories of Wabash Ave.

Ken Lester--August 25, 2009


Dick, I don't consider myself a history "buff" but reading about someone like Mattie, from someone who knew her, is really something. Interesting. Intriguing. Pretty darn nifty! As we've discussed, everyone should have a Mattie in their life. Thank you so much for such a personal look into a piece of Deadwood's history. Whenever I'm in Deadwood from now on, I'll be thinking of Mattie.

Jann August 26, 2009


Hello, I love the information that you have provided about Matilda Hill. I am a family decedent of Matilda Hill. She is my great-great grandmother. I just was reading about her in a book my dad gave me called "Mount Moriah, Kill a man-Start a cemetery" the story of deadwood's BOOT HILL by Helen Rezatto. So I decided to look her up on the internet and found this page. I will love to get into contact with you and learn more about my family.

Quincy L. Jones--September 7, 2009


On behalf of Clifford Melrose's Children- Janice, Brenda, Clifford Jr. and Michael. Thank you for this tribute of our Great-Grandma Mattie Hill. Now, we have more information to pass on to our own children.

Thanks again,

Janice Melrose October 12. 2009



Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the history you share with our Black Hills folks, Dick. I don't always get back to your site, but when I do, there's always something of interest here. And, oh, I just love your music links! Great job! Ann Stanton

Anonymous said...

I am one of Mattie Hill's great-grandaughters. This is an amazing tribute - thank you so much. The values and principles by which she lived are a lesson to us all.

Cynthia Harris - Olympia, WA

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