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Johnny Vardeman: Rowdy rituals on New Year’s Eve lured crowds to greet 1960s

POSTED: January 1, 2017 12:30 a.m.

During the 1950s, perhaps earlier, it had been a ritual among the younger crowd, and even some older Northeast Georgians, to celebrate a new year with a bit of rowdiness.

This was especially true in county seat towns, where the courthouse was the center of the public square. Drivers would bring their cars, some of them souped-up models, to the town square to show off as a way to welcome in the new year.

Cumming was still a country town in the 1950s, not nearly the bustling place it is today. The town square on New Year’s Eve was the place to be.

From previous New Year’s experience, law enforcement officers there knew there would be a crowd to usher in the decade of the 1960s. Cars had jammed the square in years before, and the word spread there would be a mega celebration Dec. 31, 1959.

Cumming Police Chief Hill Tallant knew he would need help if predictions of the large crowd came true. Neither could Forsyth County Sheriff Loy Barnette and his small force of deputies handle the situation if it got out of hand.

They called on the state to provide help from state troopers. Thirty-five state patrol officers joined local law officers in trying to control the crowd, which was estimated in the hundreds, many coming from neighboring counties.

Not intimidated, the rowdies raced their cars, “scratching off” in the faces of law officers and otherwise snubbing their noses at them. Some resented such a show of force and began to set fires around. At least one store was looted,

In the end, however, law enforcement prevailed. Twenty-eight of the offenders were arrested, mostly for drunkenness or disorderly driving.

• • 

Fires had been in the news during the outgoing year of 1959, especially in Gainesville. In February, Clary’s, a discount variety store downtown, burned. Fires also struck L.N. Adams store, Cofer’s Seed Store and the Princeton Hotel. An arsonist was indicted in the cases. Woolworth’s later that year would take over the hotel space at the corner of Washington and Main streets.

That May, Pete Tankersley’s Sporting Goods burned, and in December fire destroyed the Earl Vance Co., doing $250,000 damage and putting 100 employees out of work just before Christmas. The company on South Main Street manufactured leather goods.

1959 was the year, too, that controversy over the location of Interstate 85 from Atlanta to the South Carolina line was at its peak. State and federal officials had endorsed a route that would bring it within 8 miles of Gainesville and also close to Cornelia and Toccoa. However, Gov. Ernest Vandiver, whose home was in Lavonia, shifted the route away from those cities and closer to Lavonia, arguing that it would be a more direct route.

The year also brought an end to the steam locomotive era in Northeast Georgia. Gainesville Midland Railroad, which CSX continues to operate between Gainesville and Athens, switched to diesel trains.

Gainesville Jaycees and others were still trying to get the Hall County Library out of its courthouse basement home. Civic leaders campaigned hard for a separate standalone building for the library, but it was not to be in 1959. A bond issue failed miserably 2,637 to 1,930. Eventually a new library would be built at its present site, the corner of West Academy and Main streets.

The Gainesville Junior High School property was up for sale briefly, but the board of education and city commissioners quashed the deal following considerable public protest. Had the sale been approved, the junior high would have moved to a renovated Main Street School, which long since was demolished. Gainesville Middle School on Jesse Jewell Parkway succeeded the old junior high.

On New Year’s Day 1960, the Georgia Bulldogs, under Coach Wally Butts, defeated Missouri 14-0 in the Orange Bowl.

In other sports highlights of that era, Tommy Aaron, still an amateur golfer, was named Athlete of the Year and helped America’s Walker Cup team to victory.

The New Year came in tragically for some as ice and snow covered the Lanier Bridge, now named Jerry Jackson Bridge, on Ga. 53 west. Three people died on the bridge as their cars collided in a spectacular accident.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.



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