Downey Boulevard is a short Gainesville street running between South Enota Drive and Myrtle Street.
It’s named for an important man in Northeast Georgia’s medical history, Dr. James Henry Downey. The street runs in front of the North Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
Longtime residents know the story of the doctor, who came here with Pacolet Mills when it was located in New Holland. What is lesser known is the significant role he played in getting the mill to build in Hall County. Some even credited him with being solely responsible for bringing the industry to the Gainesville area, quite a prize in that day when communities all over the South were competing for companies that were fleeing the North.
Dr. Downey at the time was chief surgeon for Pacolet Mills, based in South Carolina. Capt. John Montgomery, president of the company, asked him to recommend a new site for a mill. The story goes that he looked at three Southern cities, settling on Gainesville. When the decision was made, Dr. Downey decided not to return to South Carolina, but immediately went to Atlanta to take medical exams that would allow him to practice in Georgia.
Not long after the mill opened, a tornado struck both Gainesville Mill and New Holland in 1903. Dr. Downey was among the heroes tending to the scores who were injured that day.
It was during this tragic time, too, that he met his future wife, Lillie Farrara, who as a nurse worked at his side helping victims of the storm.
Before Dr. Downey built a small infirmary at the corner of what was then Sycamore Street, now E.E. Butler Parkway, and East Spring Street, he used part of his residence for patient rooms. In 1912, he replaced the infirmary with a two-story brick building on the same site, and it bore his name, Downey Hospital. It had 30 rooms and could accommodate 20 patients. At the time it was the first fully equipped hospital between Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., and was the first accredited hospital in the state. It had an operating room, X-ray and laboratory in addition to patient rooms.
While chief surgeon with Pacolet at New Holland, he would see workers with bone fractures who had to lie in heavy casts for months. They would have no income during these long periods, and many patients with broken bones would die.
That led Dr. Downey to devise a fracture table that bore his name, allowing the broken bone to be set at an angle and the patient eventually recovering in a wheelchair. The American Medical Association ranked him as one of the leading fracture experts in the nation, and he made numerous talks and wrote papers on the topic.
He also organized the 9th District Medical Society.
The Downeys were active in the community, and Mrs. Downey is credited with helping start a library at Grace Episcopal Church, then having it moved to the basement of the Hall County Courthouse before it relocated in a new building at its present site in downtown Gainesville.
Dr. Downey died in 1937, and Mrs. Downey in 1962.
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A fire in the boiler room in August 1951 didn’t damage the main part of Downey Hospital, but while firefighters were trying to put out the blaze, two babies were born. Grady Lee Roberts was born to Mr. and Mrs. Selma Lee Roberts, and Randall Lee White was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lee White.
Downey Hospital operated only a few weeks more until the new Hall County Hospital, the present Northeast Georgia Medical Center, opened.
Hall County bought the old hospital building the next year, and it was renovated for use as county offices, including the school board, health department, Production and Marketing Administration, Farmers Home Administration, Soil Conservation office, Game and Fish Commission and Georgia Forestry Commission. A three-room kitchen with a separate entrance was provided for black health workers in that still-segregated era.
The county paid $67,500 for the building, which Dr. Downey had built decades earlier for $10,000.
The building long since was torn down to make way for commercial development in that area.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.