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Oak Street was a happy place in hard times

POSTED: October 31, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Like many streets leading from downtown Gainesville, Oak Street isn't what it used to be.

Today the street is mostly commercial, everything from auto repair shops to offices.

It used to be a popular residential street so quiet children played in the street. A few businesses mixed in among the homes.

Bradley Lawson's grandmother, Jo Lawson, lived in the back of a store on the east end of the street. A block of ice kept soft drinks cold in a cooler, Jack's cookies sold for a penny, and there was hoop cheese, fatback, Rooster and Buttercup snuff, all of which could be put on a tab to be paid later.

Lawson also remembers the taste-tempting aroma of doughnuts cooking in the early morning in a shop run by the Harkins family. He cut grass for Flossie Hope for $1 a week and recalls her keeping horses in the backyard.

George Briscoe ran a salvage store and let children into his attic to catch pigeons.

All the houses had front porches, remembers Barbara Murphy McConnell, and her mother admonished her that wasn't the place to paint your toenails. Huge oak trees, apparently the origin of the street's name, shaded homes with 14-foot ceilings providing natural air-conditioning. Most mothers worked only in the home and looked after each other's children.

Barbara and other girls liked to play in Ivey Terrace Park behind their houses. Lawson says the park remains a real treasure with much of it still like it was 60 years ago. He used to have dirt-clod battles with other boys in a ravine, an old quarry now part of the park.

The ice cream man would come down Oak Street with nickel and dime treats. Barbara's brother Reg always bought a two-stick popsicle to share with her.

Those were the days when as a 7-year-old she could walk to the library in the basement of the courthouse. Sometimes she would walk all the way to Riverside Drive for piano lessons, and children routinely walked to Main Street School.
There were no paved sidewalks, and roller skating in the street was a regular pastime.

Gaybourn Mills, managed by F.E. Bobo and later Jack Reynolds, was at one end of the street, and a store in the forks of Oak, Rainey Street and Woodsmill Road at one time was a mission of First Methodist Church, Larry Payne remembers.

Payne, along with Reg Murphy, Leroy Harper and others would caddy at the golf course at the bottom of the hill. On a good Saturday, he'd make $2. It was the same golf course Masters champion Tommy Aaron of Gainesville practiced on as a boy. His father, Charlie Aaron, was the pro there.

Gainesville High School and its football practice field were across Oak Street. Lawson remembers a player called "Jimmy B." Bagwell running all the way into the street to avoid tacklers.

Phil Hudgins' grandparents, Bessie and Charlie Stevens, lived on the street, and his Aunt Betty would dig gray clay from a creek bank behind their house to make ash trays and bowls. Though traffic was light on the street, as a child Phil was struck by a car and had to be treated at the hospital.

Oak Street was populated by good-sized Gibbs families. Alvin Gibbs was one of them, and he called the street "Happy Oak Street" because of the many romances that blossomed there.

J.D. Gibbs, 80, Alvin's cousin, said it was a happy place to live, but times were hard. He was one of 12 children that his mother, Estelle, had to raise after their father died when he was 8. He would bring home the 50 cents he made caddying at the golf course to help his mother put food on the table. "We were so poor we didn't have trash," he said.

J.D. remembers the street when it was still dirt, and there were no indoor bathrooms.

During World War II, the Gibbs family made the front page of the Gainesville Eagle because seven of them, including a WAC, were in the service.

All the old Oak Street families moved long ago, Payne said. Five houses they lived in remain, only one of those occupied as a residence.

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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