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Christmas came in '36 despite tragic storm

POSTED: December 28, 2008 12:30 a.m.

People are still around who remember that first Christmas season after Gainesville's 1936 tornado.

The country remained in an economic depression, and just a few months earlier twin tornadoes merged over West Gainesville and tore through the city's downtown and business center. More than 200 died, hundreds more were injured, and the winds sucked the very economic lifeblood out of the town.

This was in a time before businesses were spread out all over town. No malls, no strip shopping centers as we know them today. Practically all the retail and most offices, including local government, were on the downtown square or immediately around it.

While Gainesville continued in mourning, especially those who had lost loved ones in the storm, the city had picked up and started over focusing on brighter days ahead.

The tornado had destroyed its street lighting system. Just before Christmas 1936, the lights were turned back on for the first time, brightening hope for a devastated community. The Chamber of Commerce joined with merchants to decorate downtown with lights and Christmas trees sprayed white in the middle of the square. The garden clubs and the chamber sponsored a home decorations contest.

Brenau College, which had been damaged by the storm, put up a large community tree loaded with presents for local children.

Local newspapers urged people to show the Christmas spirit through decorations despite the tragedy of that April. "Businessmen realize the need to beautify our town and drive thoughts of the tornado from the minds of visitors," the Gainesville News wrote. "It is a chance for Gainesville to bring thousands of people here during the holiday season, not to see a ruined city, but one that has recovered from one of the worst blows ever dealt a city in Georgia - one that has risen within a few months' time from a pile of debris to the prettiest little city of its size in the nation."

Businesses decided to remain open late Saturday night, Dec. 19, and Christmas Eve to accommodate shoppers. They would close Saturday, Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, something unheard of today. Gainesville Steam Laundry, Davis-Washington Lumber, Paul's Clothing, Parks Café, Nivens Shoe Shop and Riverside Café announced they were operating again full speed.

Estes Department Store on the square had a full-page ad appealing to Christmas shoppers. Whatley's Pharmacy advertised Whitman's candy boxes from 25 cents to $7.50. Gallant-Belk offered cotton bloomers for a quarter. Small and Estes Bakery on North Bradford Street enticed customers with baked holiday treats. Piggly-Wiggly had reopened in a new location on Bradford Street, as had Palmour Hardware on South Main.

Other activities continued as normal as could be expected. Gainesville High School, suffering through a 4-4-1 season, held its football banquet. Likewise, the University of Georgia had ended a so-so 5-4-1 season by beating Georgia Tech.

Streets were slushy at times because December weather brought cold, snow and sleet, but it provided farmers a good hog-killing time just before Christmas.

Democrats were still celebrating the re-election of President Franklin Roosevelt, who in a few months would revisit Gainesville to celebrate its restoration.

The rebuilding indeed continued as Masons, county commission Chairman Glenn McConnell and County Attorney G. Fred Kelley helped lay the cornerstone for the new courthouse. That building, which has been expanded and is now an annex to the main courthouse, remains part of the local government complex on Spring Street.

Meanwhile, the city had purchased property just to the rear on Broad Street for a new city hall, which also is part of the local government center.

There were criticisms, of course, about the pace of some of the recovery efforts. Downtown streets and sidewalks had to be dug up more than once to lay utility lines, blocking access to some stores. Some rebuilding wasn't as fast as hoped.

But overall, Gainesville not only had survived, in a few short months it was on its way to a renaissance. It received accolades not only from President Roosevelt, but others throughout the country and parts of the world.

The spirit and spunk of those residents can serve as inspiration today to those who are affected by the nation's worst economic recession since that period of the 1930s.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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