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City seeks marker to remember ’36 tragedy

Gainesville pants factory fire left dozens dead

POSTED: November 7, 2012 11:30 p.m.

After 76 years, the site of a Gainesville tragedy could be getting more recognition with a historical marker.

The Gainesville City Council agreed on Tuesday to submit an application to the Georgia Historical Society to place a historical marker at the spot where the Cooper Pants Factory burned in 1936, killing dozens of young women. If approved, the city would be a sponsor of the marker.

The factory, which was on Broad Street between Maple Street and the Midland Railroad, caught fire during the 1936 tornado and left at least 40 women dead, said Garland Reynolds Jr., a prominent Hall County architect whose father worked in a butcher shop near the factory at the time of the tornado and fire.

“This was an event of national significance. It’s the largest loss of lives due to a fire caused by a tornado in U.S. history,” he said. “It’s a part of Gainesville history that’s not been acknowledged.”

The tornado that struck Gainesville is considered one of the deadliest in U.S. history. About 200 people were killed, according to estimates, and much of downtown was destroyed. According to accounts, a tornado hit the factory, causing it to collapse. That collapse set off a fire that killed the workers who were trapped inside.

“There was a lot of people that died during the tornado for other reasons, but this was the central loss of life,” Reynolds said. “We still don’t know how many people, mainly women, perished there. We’ve got ranges of anywhere from 40 to 125.”

The tragedy had a personal connection for Reynolds, whose father was nearby when the fire broke out.

“I recall him telling me how he stood outside and heard the women scream as they died,” he said. “They knew they were doomed.”

Reynolds said most of the women working at the factory were “poor country girls,” and there were no records of exactly who was at the factory at the time of the tragedy.

“No one knows really who they were for the main part,” he said. “It was a great tragedy.”

Reynolds said the city should have somehow acknowledged the fire and loss of life “a long time ago.”

“I don’t know, but maybe there were political situations at the time that caused this to be swept under the rug, so to speak,” he said. “It’s part of the heritage of the town, and it’s time the people of Gainesville realized this happened for better or worse.

“I think it adds to the history of Gainesville in a very meaningful way.”

The city, which owns the area the pants factory was on, will split the $5,000 cost of the marker with the historical society. The city’s application included a variety of items, including proposed marker text, a map of the proposed marker site as well as historical documents and research about the site.

According to the Georgia Historical Society, it can take between six and 12 months for the marker to be installed and dedicated after it’s approved by a committee. Once in place, the sponsor, which would be the city of Gainesville, would be responsible for routine maintenance and monitoring of the marker.

Reynolds said he hoped a historical marker will help raise awareness of the tragic events that occurred at the factory.

“I just want to congratulate the city for taking this step. This is a real momentous thing,” he said. “This is a good time to be recognizing things like this, and to sit back, take a deep breath and decide what we have, what we have had and what we need to do for the future.”


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