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Johnny Vardeman: Hall boosters took to road to tell story before WWI
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Hall County was feeling its oats just before World War I. It had landed two large textile mills, other small industries were thriving, a few streets were paved, and roads were being graded and top-soiled.

There were many other things to boast about. Three railroads — Southern, Gainesville Midland and Gainesville and Northwestern — carried passengers and freight to and from the county. Six banks were doing well. Riverside Military Academy and Brenau College were filling with students from all over. “Unusually handsome church edifices” could be found around Gainesville and Hall County.

Hall County boosters talked about Gainesville’s “well-paved streets,” its waterworks and own electric power system. Actually, only 3 miles of streets were paved.

The cotton and hosiery mills’ 100,000 spindles used 50,000 bales of cotton a year. Population was 30,000 and growing. The tax digest was $9 million, there were no county debts or bonds; in fact, a $25,000 surplus.

Hall County had more rural telephone lines than any other county in the state. Despite near-100-degree temperatures in the days to come, they said the county’s weather had “no depressing heat” and mild winters. Water was pure as could be found anywhere.

So there was plenty to brag about, and local leaders wanted to tell the state about it so other businesses and industries would come a-calling.

They organized what they called a “boosters tour” around Northeast Georgia. Automobiles in 1915 weren’t all that prevalent, but enough people owned them that they could organize somewhat of a parade to visit communities in their corner of the state.

Nor were the roads so good; in fact, very few were paved at that time. Still on a warm sunny day in July, dozens of decorated cars and a truck carrying a band set out from Gainesville’s downtown square. They were led by “pacemakers” B.H. Merck in a Hudson and Will Summer Jr. in a Studebaker. Ed Barrett led a group of singers until he swallowed a plug of tobacco.

The first stop in Clermont set the tone for the tour. Motorists were met by scores of residents and a band. They were served refreshments before driving on to White County, where they were greeted with sacks of peaches as they stopped at the home of Congressman Tom Bell, who also was on the tour.

After riding through Nacoochee Valley, the tourists were similarly greeted in Habersham County, where they dined at two hotels in Cornelia. Every whistle in Toccoa greeted them on their stop there.

Stops the second day included communities in Franklin County, Homer, Maysville, Commerce and Jefferson. All along the way, town leaders would ride out in advance to lead them into their communities. Most towns served them refreshments, including lemonade, sandwiches, sometimes fried chicken.

From Winder, the motorcade traveled through the suburbs of Atlanta, finally parading to great fanfare down Peachtree Street, where they were treated royally.

They began the return to Gainesville through Forsyth and Dawson counties, where they encountered “the worst roads” between Silver City and Dawsonville. After driving through Auraria and Dahlonega, they were greeted on Green Street in Gainesville by a raucous crowd as if the motorists were heroes returning from war overseas.

They had covered 45 towns in 14 counties in three days, sometimes on muddy roads, most times ending a day covered with dust.

• • •

Leo Frank, the convicted killer of Mary Phagan in April 1913, was taken from the state prison in Milledgeville and lynched in Marietta Aug. 16, 1915. He had a close call with death just a few weeks earlier. A fellow prisoner cut Frank’s throat with a knife used for butchering hogs. Prison medical personnel were able to get to him before he died and was recovered by the time he was hanged by the neck in Cobb County.

Questions remain to this day whether Frank actually was Mary Phagan’s killer. He was superintendent of the pencil factory where Mary worked and where her body was found.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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