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What it was like as 1950s came to end

POSTED: December 27, 2009 1:00 a.m.

So what was the Christmas season like half a century ago in Northeast Georgia, say 1959?

Downtown Gainesville still was the regional shopping center. The strip stores and malls had not yet proliferated, and many shoppers descended on Gainesville stores for their gift-buying.

Stores like Estes, Millner’s and Gallant-Belk were mainstays on the square, advertising cashmere coats for $59, Hush Puppies shoes for $8.99 and leather jackets for $19.90. The Fair sold nylon hose for 99 cents.

Stores that continue downtown today, such as Martin Furniture, cut prices on toasters and other small appliances; Gem Jewelry pushed Remington electric shavers for men and women; and Sauls offered slips for $5.98. Even City Ice Co. promoted bargains for Christmas on televisions and record players and held an "oldest washing machine" contest.

Shoppers drank their coffee, bought small gifts or snacked during shopping breaks at "drugstores" like Whatley’s, Piedmont or Dixie-Hunt.

During December, downtown stores stayed open late Friday nights and the night before Christmas Eve, but closed early Dec. 24 and all day Christmas, a Friday just like in 2009. The economy was sluggish, but not terrible.

The Junior Service League crowned Linda Jackson, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Jackson, queen of the Charity Ball, and the Jaycees conducted a decorations contest. The Crabapple Garden Club decorated the R.W. Clary home on Blue Ridge Drive.

The Eagles Club, Beta Sigma Phi, Tuberculosis Association, East Hall Y Clubs, Boys’ Club, North Hall Future Homemakers, Salvation Army, Women’s Clubs and Red Cross raised money for food and gifts for the needy.

Brenau Chorus, Riverside Military Academy’s glee club and a citywide concert conducted by Don Rich at the Gainesville Junior High School gym were highlights of seasonal musical programs. A sock hop livened things later at the same location.

Churches cooperated for a joint Christmas Eve service, and First Methodist pastor the Rev. Zach Hayes preached at an ecumenical Christmas morning service at First Christian Church on North Bradford Street.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned Lake Lanier residents the lake level would drop because heavy fall rains had not left enough room for storing normal winter and spring rains. The level stood at 1,067.37 feet above sea level around Christmastime.

Sports fans were looking toward football bowl season but were still talking about Gainesville High School’s 21-14 loss to Rossville for the North Georgia AA championship despite the Red Elephants having such players as Billy Martin, Jimmy Coyle, Billy Lothridge, Royce Anderson and Preston Ridlehuber, and the efforts of Coach Graham Hixon. Lothridge and Martin signed a few days later to play at Georgia Tech.

Gainesville school system, meanwhile, was struggling with finances as the state reduced payments despite an increase in enrollment. Parents and school officials were watching Judge Frank Hooper’s ruling on a desegregation plan for Atlanta.

A series of tours took place at Chattahoochee Golf Course, which was under construction with another $60,000 needed to complete it and a pro shop.

Gainesville’s city election featured a close race with Otis Helton beating Billy Vickers by 41 votes for a commission seat. It was close in Cleveland, too, as the White County seat had a two-mayor situation. Lou Cooper had not sought re-election, but polled more write-in votes than Allen Mauney, who was on the ballot unopposed.

The Chamber of Commerce conducted a year-end blitz for new members, and Standard Telephone Co. was installing a new dial telephone system in Dahlonega.

Fire destroyed the Earle Vance Leather Co. that 1959 Christmas season, and Seaboard Airline Railroad presented Gainesville with steam Engine 209, which had hauled trains for years on the Gainesville Midland Railroad to Athens and back.

Mark Trail was still smoking his pipe in Gainesvillian Ed Dodd’s comic strip. President Dwight Eisenhower spent most of the month touring world capitals.

Things were calm enough as the ’50s decade closed, and Americans could never imagine what the ’60s would bring: Turbulent times with assassinations and the Vietnam War, which would divide the country the worst since the Civil War a century earlier.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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