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Hall Countians paid tribute to late First Lady

POSTED: October 30, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Gainesville's Norfolk Southern Railroad depot has been the scene of several memorable occasions, including presidential whistle-stop campaigns, troop trains during World War II, visits from President Franklin Roosevelt and funeral trains.

Roosevelt's train stopped in Gainesville at least twice, and many still remember the mournful day in April 1945 when the train came bearing his body from Warm Springs back to Washington. Large crowds were at the depot and along the tracks up and down the train's route.

Another funeral train in August 1914 stopped in Gainesville en route to Rome from Washington. It bore the body of Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson. She died of Bright's Disease, apparently complicated by a fall she suffered. The president and his three daughters were at Ellen's Washington bedside when she died at age 54.

Mrs. Wilson spent many of her summers in Gainesville with relatives. Two of her and President Wilson's daughters, Margaret and Jessie, were born in Gainesville. When the president's wife died, Margaret stood in as First Lady until he remarried. It is said among her last words was encouragement for her husband to marry again.

When the train bearing Mrs. Wilson's body came through Gainesville, it stopped at the depot on what is now Industrial Boulevard for five minutes. Hall Countians, upon learning of her death, had held a meeting in City Hall to discuss ways to pay tribute to their former part-time resident. They decided on a floral pillow and a floral cross to be added to the train car carrying her casket. It already was filled with floral tributes.

Gainesville stores closed during the time the funeral train passed through Gainesville. A crowd estimated at 1,500 gathered at the depot, and the scene was crowded with automobiles and carriages. Local people who knew her characterized her as "the ideal American mother."

President Wilson was on the train, but nobody got a glimpse of him as he was said to be sleeping, having gone without sleep the night before. The funeral was held in Rome, where the Wilsons first met and where her father had served as a Presbyterian minister.

In 1904, Gainesville's unpaved sidewalks, such as they were, were deep in mud and hardly walkable by pedestrians of the day, which were many at that time. There was an effort under way to have store proprietors around the downtown area fix up their sidewalks to make them more navigable.

Another incentive for improved sidewalks was free mail delivery. The post office wouldn't deliver mail free of charge if its carriers didn't have adequate sidewalks. Another barrier to free delivery at the time was the lack of street signs and numbers. The city was figuring a numbering system and installing signs naming the streets.

The Federal Building at the corner of Spring, Green and Washington streets in downtown Gainesville once considered locating in the middle of the square. The building was built primarily as a post office that faced East Washington at its intersection with Green Street. The federal government, in the years before the 1936 tornado destroyed much of downtown Gainesville, preferred to be in the middle of the business district, the square itself where the Confederate monument is located. The feds proposed exchanging that property for the property they owned at Washington and Green.

It didn't happen, of course, and you can be sure the United Daughters of the Confederacy was a major reason as it has resisted any efforts to mess with "Old Joe," as the Confederate statue has been nicknamed.

A Hall Countian nicknamed both "Cousin Joe" and "Lying Joe" Reed many years ago was the unofficial weather prognosticator. Perhaps it already was a folk saying, but he suggested residents watch the first 12 days after Christmas for signs of how the weather would be the following year.

For instance, if the weather were cold and snowy the day after Christmas, then that would be the weather for January. If it were mild and sunny Dec. 27, two days after Christmas, that was how February would be. Three days after Christmas would be how March would be and so on through the rest of the year.

Probably about as accurate as today's long-range forecasts even with all the electronic and satellite gadgetry available

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



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