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Possum took pride in job on city streets

POSTED: January 1, 2012 1:00 a.m.

People make up the character of the community. Certain personalities over time have stood out almost as familiar as the Confederate statue on Gainesville's downtown square.

It doesn't seem like four decades ago that Howard "Possum" Bailey retired as the city's primary street sweeper. Long after modern mechanical street sweepers came on to do the job, Possum for years continued to push his broom and barrel around downtown Gainesville to keep its streets clear of litter.

Short in stature, he was immediately recognizable wearing his bib overalls, denim jacket and rumpled felt hat. While walking, Possum seemed to rock from side to side, smiling, greeting passers-by, sometimes chatting with them or himself.

Possum believed he was born in 1896 behind where the old First Methodist Church now stands. He had worked in a rock quarry near Chicopee before joining the city of Gainesville street department in 1918.

He didn't have much education, but went at least through second grade at a building on Athens Street and at Fair Street School.

Interviewed during his retirement in 1972, Possum recalled how he got his job with the city. He was watching two city workers on the square trying to operate a "wheeler," a mule-powered contraption that would scrape the dirt streets. Possum let the man supervising the workers know he knew how to make the thing work. The supervisor bet him $10 he couldn't, whereupon Possum proceeded to "giddy-up" the mule, simultaneously throwing a lever to lower the scraping pan to the proper level.

Possum already had told the supervisor he didn't have any money, so after he had won the bet, he wouldn't take the man's $10. The supervisor wanted to hire Possum on the spot, but he wouldn't take the job because he didn't want the other two men to lose theirs. However, he later became a city employee, operating the wheeler, later rolling the 55-gallon barrel on wagon wheels around downtown streets.

He also worked on what he called the city farm off Thompson Bridge Road. The farm produced corn for the mules and horses the city owned. The city at that time also would load wagons with food and distribute it to the needy.

One of the highlights of his career, Possum told an interviewer at the time of his retirement, was when he "rescued" somebody's payroll that had fallen into a storm drain. People at City Hall knew whom to call, and Possum responded. Boasting that he was the only one in town who could do that, he said, "Shoot, I done everything in the city that could be done."

Possum also could be proud of his attendance record with the city. He was always on time, seldom out sick and never took all his allotted leave.

The city presented him its Service Award upon his retirement.

The year before Possum retired, another well-known Gainesville man also completed his career. C.R. Franklin, the popular congenial manager of Gallant-Belk when it was on the downtown square, completed 37 years with Belk in Gainesville.

Other highlights from 1971:

Sen. Richard Russell of Winder died. Bad weather kept some dignitaries, including Vice President Spiro Agnew, from attending his funeral, but many others, including Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Gen. William Westmoreland, were there.

About $10 million in projects were nearly completed at Lake Lanier Islands, making the state resort partially operational in the spring.

Another shot in North Georgia's tourism arm was on the horizon with the development of Unicoi State Park at Robertstown north of Helen in White County.

The city of Atlanta bought the 10,000-acre Dawson County property of the former Lockheed Nuclear Laboratory, ostensibly for a second Atlanta airport. That led to years of fervent opposition to such a proposal, and the airport never was built. Atlanta still owns the property, which serves as a forest managed by the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Hall County began to offer fire protection outside municipalities that didn't have their own fire departments.

Dahlonega elected its first black council member, Thomas Keith.

Gainesville High School star running back Tommy West signed to play college football for the Tennessee Volunteers.

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 at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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