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Johnny Vardeman: Levines left lasting legacy as craftsmen
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The record needs to be set straighter on who built the famed lectern first used by President Franklin Roosevelt, who dedicated a new courthouse and city hall in Gainesville after the 1936 tornado practically blew away the downtown and government buildings.

Earl Levine ought to know. It was his father, Irving, who followed plans drawn by Joe Brice in their shops on what was then Grove Street, now West Academy across from the former Gainesville Midland Railroad depot, now home of the Arts Council.

Brice had a shop in the upstairs part of the building, and Levine’s was downstairs. They worked together on various projects around the area.

Irving Levine brought his family to North Georgia from Chicago in the early 1930s. He was with a machine shop, and the company was looking for an innovative way to extract gold from the Lumpkin County hills. Levine was to do the millwork for the equipment, which would gouge out the metal from a mine around Auraria, the village that became notorious during what is called the Dahlonega gold rush, advertised as the first in the United States.

The project didn’t pan out, so to speak, and Levine had to find work in Gainesville, first working at Chambers Lumber Co. after the 1936 tornado. There he became known as a master craftsman and did millwork for any number of buildings.

His son, Earl, was 7 years old when the family migrated to the South. He attended Main Street School and Gainesville High School, leaving in 1945 to join the U.S. Air Force. He went to radio school in Madison, Wis., later marrying his wife, Beatrice Conner, from Madison.

One of Earl’s most memorable experiences in service was flying over the devastation where an atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico.

After two years in the Air Force, he came back to Gainesville to work for Davis-Washington Lumber Co. Earl had learned carpentry from his father and became quite the craftsman himself. By now, Irving was at Davis-Washington, and they worked together on various jobs around Gainesville.

One of their signature projects was the new First Baptist Church on Green Street. His father drew all the plans for the millwork, and Earl specialized in the circle work, arches and windows on the interior.

Irving Levine succeeded as a craftsman though he had only a seventh grade education.  Earl had remained with Davis-Washington until it closed. He recalls owner Henry Washington handing him a $100 bill.

After his father retired, Earl took over the woodworking shop in the early 1970s. He and his wife moved to Texas for a few years to be near their son, Marty, and their family. Marty, a Georgia Tech graduate, works with Exxon, though his father said he had become a pretty good craftsman himself.

Earl, 90, and his wife have moved back to Gainesville. He sadly decries the dwindling number of craftsmen today, saying big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s lessen the demand for individual operations like he and his father once had. “They about ran millwork out of business,” he says.

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Earl Levine remembers when Mule Camp Springs dried up. City Ice Co. and J.D. Jewell Inc. both dug wells, sucking up so much water that the spring went dry, he said. But the wells later went out of operation, and the springs flowed full again. They are in the parking lot near the intersection of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy streets.

Gainesville’s origins derive from what became known as Mule Camp Springs, where early settlers to the area gathered to water their livestock.

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Otis Lathem early in the 1900s went hunting on property in Hall County where he thought he had permission until he found a “no trespassing” sign. The property owner’s sign also promised violators they would be “prosecuted to the full extent of two mean mongrel (sic) dogs plus one double-barreled shotgun.”

Otis still went hunting — for another place to hunt.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.