As “Miss Ola” Hitt opened her arms to so many in need, the City of Aiken opens its arms to stories of the matriarch's great deeds.
The daughter of John Martin Hitt and Abbie Shuler Hitt, Ola was born in Martinez, Ga., in 1910 on a plantation. Hitt died this year on May 10 at the age of 103.
She was the sister to four: Frances Hitt Fulmer, Algie Neal, Margaret and Wayne.
In 1915, Hitt moved to Pascalina in Montmorenci. Pascalina was named for her great-grandmother's uncle, Cyril Pascalis. When Hitt was 16, she moved to Aiken at 823 York St. to rent the home from her Uncle John and Aunt Lizzie Shuler.
Hitt loved Aiken, according to an autobiography compiled and edited by Wanda Payne.
Hitt and her mother later lived at 930 York St., then had to leave the house and figure out their next move. A house was for sale on Chesterfield Street – 14 bedrooms and nine bathrooms, perfect for boarding. They paid $11,000 and paid a loan for $70 a month.
The home the Hitts built
One Sunday afternoon, a woman came looking for a room for her a friend of hers who was a veteran. Hitt and her mother could not take the man; there were not any vacant rooms.
Then the Veterans Administration started a residential care program asking individuals to sponsor veterans, many who had psychological wounds from war. Thus started Hitt's home for veterans and her new name, Mother of Veterans.
“Ola Hitt did something no one else was doing,” said Elliott Levy, executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum. “She opened her house as a halfway home for veterans. These are World War II and Korean War veterans. Some of them stayed for six years, others 15. She took them in and gave them a place to get themselves together.”
Hitt kept strict rules and a a strict schedule. Veterans were expected to be at lunch and dinner at specific times; there would be mandatory fire drills; residents had to stay on special diets; and, of course, no smoking inside the home.
Taking care of the wounded at home was one side to her work. The other was field trips to New York, Canada, Washington state and all the way to Peru.
“She didn't take the residents to just Augusta or Columbia,” Levy said. “She'd take them to Alaska, Central and South America, Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of the young men who lived with her was from there, and this young man's family thought he had been killed in the war. It was a reuniting of the family.”
Local historian Allen Riddick said Hitt was a mother to those men.
“She got a lot of credit for taking care of veterans,” Riddick said. “She did a great job. She had very strict rules for them, and she would send them to other nursing homes if they did not abide by her rules.”
Hitt's impact on the Aiken community
Hitt's legacy never went unnoticed. She won various awards and recognitions, including serving as grand marshal of the City of Aiken's Memorial Day Parade for many years. She received the Order of the Palmetto in 1990, one of the highest awards given to an individual in the state. Hitt was recognized by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and H. Odell Weeks, the late Aiken mayor. The late S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell proclaimed a day after Hitt, and U.S. Rep. J. Gresham Barrett acknowledged her many contributions to the community on her 100th birthday.
“She was very involved, even at a late age,” Riddick said. “She knew everyone, even if she didn't remember them by name. I really got to know her more in 1999 when I became involved with the Aiken Historical Society. She'd always have meetings in her house in the big dining room and was always involved with historical groups and societies.”
Her many involvements included being a member of the Business Women's Club, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution, Genealogical Society and as a member of Aiken's First Baptist Church for almost a century.
“While her house wasn't the most beautiful old house, I really loved the porch,” Riddick said. “One of my little stories is I went over there one day, and she was sitting on the sun porch and just sorting magazines to take to nursing homes and the Georgia War Veterans (Home). She was like that, always doing something for people.”
Board OKs demolition and new construction
About a month ago, the Aiken Design Review Board unanimously approved the demolition and new construction on the Hitt property for St. John's Methodist Church. In a presentation delivered to the Board by church administrator Harry Sampson, Sampson said removal of the house to another property was considered, but was too expensive.
Pieces of the home to be used in the future was also considered by the church, but the home was just not in good shape. The church bought the house from Hitt.
“When she died, we were given first right of refusal in her will to purchase the house,” Sampson said. “The house was never given to us. We purchased the house for $315,000. ... She always thought the world of us, and we always thought the world of her.”
The church's proposed concept for the property is the construction of several handicap parking spots with an overhead covering, as well as a proposed worship center to move services from the gymnasium and to serve the church's youth.
To fund the project, the church started a capital campaign hoping to raise as much as $4 million.
“The one thing I want to say is she really cherished her friends,” Riddick said. “And she knew people all over town, and she just enjoyed talking to people and seeing them. I swear she had a steady stream of people coming to her house all the time. Maybe to a degree to check on her, but more so because they wanted to see her.”
Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard. An Atlanta native, she has a mass communications-journalism degree from UNC Asheville.
Staff photo by Haley Hughes This historic house on Chesterfield Street is the former home of Aiken matriarch Ola Hitt. St. John’s United Methodist Church owns it now.×
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter Local historian Allen Riddick shows his many pictures of Ola Hitt from her 100th birthday.×