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Santa came to North Georgia minus beard

POSTED: November 28, 2010 12:30 a.m.

When Sarah Allen Cooper was just a toddler in March 1938, her father brought her to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Gainesville, which was officially marking its recovery from the 1936 tornado.

Sarah curiously looked at the president and asked her father where his beard was. Her father, Lem Allen, explained President Roosevelt didn't have a beard. But, Sarah protested, Santa Claus always has a beard. She had thought her father was bringing her to see Santa Claus.

A couple of years later, a high-ranking Democratic Party official invited Lem Allen to meet Roosevelt on his train as he stopped in Atlanta on the way back to Washington from his vacation home in Warm Springs. Allen related the story about his daughter mistaking the president for Santa Claus.

Roosevelt is said to have thrown back his head as he laughed and responded that his wife, Eleanor, had told him a lot of people around the country thought he was Santa Claus. That's because of all the federal programs he started to bring the country out of the Depression.

North Georgia was a beneficiary of the largesse the White House and Congress passed out. Gainesville was a Civilian Conservation Corps center whose camp was near the bottom of the West Washington Street hill.

Across the country, the CCC employed 3 million jobless young men in construction, reforestation and other conservation projects. The Works Progress Administration during its peak was the largest employer in the United States, spending $11 billion by 1943.

Hall County's share of that by 1941 had totaled $1.3 million. Among those projects were almost 200 miles of roads and streets constructed or improved, 25 bridges, 467 culverts, 15 miles of sidewalks, 12 miles of curbs and 25 miles of drainage ditches.

The program also installed 282 street lights, built two new schools, repaired four schools and provided improvements at City Park, including the old rock seating on the home side of the football field. WPA projects after the 1936 tornado included the old Fire Station No. 1 on South Green Street and the original City Hall.

Hundreds of federal workers immediately came to Gainesville after the 1936 tornado. WPA nurses provided emergency care, then went door-to-door in the days after to care for the injured.
Before the tornado, Roosevelt's New Deal built the Federal Building, which still stands between Spring and Washington streets, and the old county jail, now torn down, on South Bradford Street.

Other projects included Vogel State Park, Walasi-Yi Inn at Neel's Gap and improvements at Gainesville's Ivey Terrace Park, originally built by the Rotary Club and assumed by the city. Some of the stone work remains in the park, which now connects Wilshire Trails and Longwood Park to Lake Lanier.

Funds also built school playgrounds, ballfields, tennis courts and a golf course, later inundated by Lake Lanier, at the end of Woodsmill Road. Originally planned for 18 holes, only nine holes were completed.

WPA also gave Gainesville a 30,000-gallon water tank and almost 10 miles of sewer line. Listed among the federal agency's projects were 1,237 privies (outdoor toilets) for Hall County. In addition, the program supplied people with thousands of articles of clothing, repaired 5,200 books, provided 172,000 school lunches and more than 8,000 visits to assist the needy.

WPA started today's Civic Center on Green Street in 1942, but dropped it as a project during World War II. Local funds had to finish it after the war.

The New Deal programs were praised in their years after the Depression, but there were critics. Most phased out when World War II provided jobs both in and outside the military. Even today, some question the wisdom of providing such extensive federal action to prop up the economy.

Likewise, the Democrats' initiatives to revive the economy during the current recession have come under heavy criticism as not as effective as those in the 1930s and '40s. That was in large part why Republicans regained the U.S. House in this year's elections.

But Santa Claus, a.k.a. FDR, with or without beard, was heartily welcomed to North Georgia at a time when the area needed to fill some empty stockings, especially Gainesville, which required massive rehabilitation after a tornado in the middle of an economic depression.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770- 532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.

 



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