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A costly fire long ago, and how local towns were named

POSTED: July 20, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Historians have written that a fire wiped out Gainesville in 1851, just over three decades after it was founded.

But just as it bounced back from disastrous tornadoes in 1903 and 1936, the trading center rebuilt to become bigger and better than ever. There have been numerous other spectacular fires that destroyed landmarks or portions of the business district.

The Gainesville News described another fire in 1911 as the worst in Gainesville's history at that time, although only a portion of the business district was affected. The fire originated in Palmour Hardware Co. on the western side of downtown about 8 o'clock one night. The little fire department responded quickly, but an explosion in the rear of Charles Castleberry's store spread the flames rapidly.

Fires in those days attracted crowds, paid firefighters as well as volunteers. That night, " ... the entire citizenship turned out ... to render whatever aid possible," the News wrote. The fire spread to Jake Sacks store and First National Bank. Flames soared high into the sky and threatened almost the entire downtown.

Firefighters worried that stores, including Allen Bros., M.C. Brown, Newman-Frierson-McEver and G.F. Turner, would be damaged before they got the fire under control.

The hardware store lost all its stock worth between $65,000 and $70,000, quite a sum in those days. Castleberry's lost its dry goods and clothing inventory of about $35,000, and Jake Sacks $15,000 in clothing. The bank had damage to its interior and reopened in the lobby of the Princeton Hotel the next day.

The Arlington Hotel on one corner of the square could have been affected had not firefighters knocked the flames down.

Gunpowder and ammunition explosions in the Castleberry store spread the fire and knocked down Ben Whelchel and John Hobbs, who were unreeling hose to help fight the fire. They were injured but not seriously.

The Candler Horse Guards kept watch through the night over merchandise that had been removed from stores damaged or threatened by the fire.

Gainesville Mill's water supply connected to the city's to help combat the flames, and fire departments from Athens and Atlanta were on standby to help.

• • •

Somebody suggested a while back as the towns of Oakwood and Flowery Branch were growing toward each other that they consolidate and adopt a new name. Ideas included "Flowery Oak" or "Oak Branch." Despite rapid development and the geographical closeness of the communities, one would guess citizens of either town would not go for that. They want their own identities.

You don't have to be much of an old-timer to remember when both Flowery Branch and Oakwood were sleepy crossroads fairly isolated from the pressures of residential, commercial and industrial development.

The little community of Plainview is sandwiched between the two towns, but it probably isn't a candidate for a compromise name. Nor would be Blackshear Place, which is being enveloped by Oakwood.

Oakwood and Flowery Branch have interesting origins to their names. During Civil War times, Oakwood consisted of woodlands and a couple of houses. The railroad came and changed things much as a new highway makes an impact today. The timber business brought about new homes and stores. There was talk of a need for a post office and a name for the community.

One legend has it that three men were sitting at Odell's store watching trains load timber. One said, "Oak wood." The second one said, "Yeah, oak wood." The third one said nothing, but the town adopted its name, Oakwood.

People joke about the name "Flowery Branch" and call it "Blossom Creek" instead. Actually, the story goes that Blossom Creek actually is the more correct translation of the Indian word "Nattagaska," the name of the original Cherokee camp around Spout Springs. Daisies are said to have grown on the banks of the creek, and that is why the Indians named the site.

As for Plainview, it apparently was named for the plain view of the mountains to the north from that little high spot on a ridge in south Hall County.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published May 25, 2008.



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