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Historical marker for 1936 fire gets closer to reality

Cooper Pants Factory was destroyed when the infamous 1936 tornado demolished much of Gainesville

POSTED: September 9, 2013 12:32 a.m.

Gainesville has gotten approval from the Georgia Historical Society for a historical marker at the site of the former Cooper Pants Factory.

The factory, once located at the intersection of Broad and Maple streets, burned down in the 1936 tornado that devastated much of Gainesville.

The tornado is still one of the deadliest in U.S. history, with an estimated 203 people killed when it destroyed much of the downtown area. Accounts of the factory fire say the tornado collapsed the factory, sparking the fire that trapped and killed between 40 and 125 mostly young women.

Jessica Tullar, special projects manager for the city, said she has received an email from the historical society that said the marker had been approved, but she hasn’t received an official letter. The society also wants Tullar to find documentation that the fire led to new regulations on building fire codes.

Supposedly the city adopted a new fire district and imposed new building fire codes after the tornado because many of the dead were not killed directly by the tornado, but by fire, Tullar said.

Gainesville City Council approved applying for the marker last year. The city owns the land.

Hall County architect Garland Reynolds Jr. said he always thought there should be some recognition of the tragic factory fire 77 years ago.

“It’s a very complicated process to get it approved,” Reynolds said. So that’s why I was just tickled to death to hear that it was approved.”

The story of the fire was passed down through Gainesville families, and some current residents remember hearing about it as children.

Members of the DeLong family still remember the fire because their great uncle Russell DeLong lost his wife and two daughters.

Wendy Brock said DeLong never recovered his wife’s remains. Her great-uncle Russell had found his wife, Hattie, but when he went back for her body, it was gone, Brock said.

“It was just family history that was told and was retold,” Brock said. “He was a bitter man. What remained of his life was ruined.”

Reynolds’ father worked nearby in a butcher shop. The fate of those young women haunted him, his son said. There was only one stairwell where the women could get out. There’s some dispute about whether the doors opened inward or were locked.

“It was a sweatshop,” Reynolds said. “They didn’t want the women to get up and leave their sewing machines.”

The marker costs $5,000, with the state paying half and the city paying the other half. The next step is to find any additional documentation about the fire and have City Council approve the funding.


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