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Tight election added spice to Christmas in 1897

POSTED: December 25, 2011 1:00 a.m.

A lot more than Christmas was on the minds of Gainesvillians in December 1897.

For one thing, there was a hot mayor's race. In those days, city elections were partisan, Democrats vs. Republicans. That isn't the case today, and there is some sentiment toward making all local offices nonpartisan.

But what made the 1897 mayor's election more interesting was a dispute over whether Mayor J.B. Gaston, a Republican, could succeed himself. H.H. Dean, the Democratic candidate, and his supporters claimed that the city code prevented a mayor from succeeding himself.

Gaston, who also had been a judge and U.S. commissioner and one of the wealthiest men in Gainesville, said he could because he only filled the unexpired term of his predecessor. The previous mayor, John A. Smith, had resigned, and Gaston began serving the remainder of his term in January 1897.

Dean entered the race only eight days before election day. He protested that he really didn't want to run, but agreed after leading citizens signed a petition drafting him as the Democratic nominee. The Georgia Cracker newspaper, published in Gainesville, supported Dean, proclaiming that Gaston was a bogus candidate and that the town was overwhelmingly Democratic. A bill introduced in the state legislature, still in session, to allow mayors to succeed themselves failed.

Gaston remained on the ballot and won by 52 votes, 289 to 237. Gaston and his friends, led by a brass band, paraded to his home to celebrate. The winner and several others made speeches to the cheering crowd.

His eligibility apparently was settled as Gaston continued to serve three consecutive terms.

The newspaper, unabashedly pro-Democrat, fought against what it called "Republicanism," saying the state and local government should be run by Democrats.

Dean eventually served as mayor in the early 1920s.

That city election a few days before Christmas 1897 didn't polish off politics for the year. Christmas was on a Saturday that year, and the following Monday, Dean and other local and state notables made a big deal of laying the cornerstone for his building on the corner of Washington and Main streets on the downtown square. The building would house the local Masonic lodge and Odd Fellows.

Included in the ceremony were A.D. Candler of Gainesville, secretary of state who would later become governor; Hoke Smith, publisher of the Atlanta Journal who would later serve as governor and U.S. senator; and numerous other Masonic and political figures.

Hundreds of people marched from downtown to the Georgia Female Seminary, now Brenau University, where dignitaries speechified and listened to music till the cows came home.

Otherwise, the usual Christmas activities were keeping North Georgians busy. The North Georgia Methodist Conference returned the Rev. J.M. White to First Methodist Church in Gainesville. The Ladies Aid Society of the Presbyterian Church raised funds with an oyster supper at the Hudson House. Children presented Christmas songs at the Female Seminary. Pendergrass celebrated the season with a Christmas tree at the Baptist Church.

Despite wet and cold weather that made the streets and sidewalks muddy, merchants reported good business. Hosch Brothers advertised dry goods, groceries, clothing and shoes. J.E. Murphy on the north side of the square, had dresses and gentlemen's clothes on sale. Moore and Co. Restaurant had fresh oysters on its menu. You could get a hot bath for 15 cents at Lee Parnell's bath house. Gainesville Transfer Co. offered rides for a nickel anywhere in the city, including New Holland and Gower Springs.

Campbell's Book Store offered as gift ideas books, cards, dolls and calendars. "Merchants of Gainesville have many pretty goods to offer," wrote the Georgia Cracker. It had been a record year for the farmers, who had money to spend for Christmas. "As a produce and cotton market, Gainesville has no equal," the Cracker boasted.

County school commissioner T.H. Robertson was getting ready to divide $3,160 among all teachers. H.A. Terrell, agent for Southern Express, reported heavy traffic. Yet, M.J. Chandler, tax collector, complained that only a tenth of taxpayers had paid their taxes.

While other areas of the state worried about health scares, Hall County escaped the worst diseases. "Gainesville is free from all contagious diseases," the newspaper wrote. "It is one of the healthiest towns in Georgia, and its people are prosperous and happy. Atlanta, Rome and Griffin have had small pox; Gainesville's health is good, thank you."

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



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