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Johnny Vardeman: Pioneer Rylees grave ceremony planned Oct. 29
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It’s been almost a century and a half since James Rylee died, but a marker will be placed at his gravesite. The ceremony is scheduled for 2 p.m. Oct. 29, at the Rylee Family Cemetery, Herbert Segers Road, Gillsville.

The Robert Forsyth and Joseph Habersham chapters of the Georgia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution will perform the rites on a knoll in the middle of a picturesque pasture near Gillsville. The rolling land consists of about 275 acres that has remained in the Rylee family.

Gillsville, originally known as Stonethrow, was the first permanent settlement in Hall County, and the Rylees were among the first settlers.

James Rylee actually was a minister, who is credited with helping form the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, was its first moderator and organized several churches, including the original Dewberry Baptist, Yellow Creek Baptist and Black’s Creek Baptist in Commerce.

The Sons of American Revolution are recognizing Rylee because he fought with General George Washington at Valley Forge in the Revolutionary War.

The ceremony will include a biography of James Rylee by Kody Rylee, who also will unveil the marker. Sons of American Revolution and Daughters of the American Revolution will lay wreaths, there will be a musket salute, “Taps,”  bagpipe music and presentation of colors. William A. Greenly, president of the Georgia Sons of American Revolution, will dedicate the marker.

Jerry and Jack Rylee of Gillsville helped get the ball rolling for the grave marking. The Gillsville Rylee family presides over the pastureland that remains with the family. The 1820s home Jack Rylee lives in was built by James Rylee Jr. They located the gravesite in the family cemetery and also provided a marker for Nancy Strickland Rylee.

Phil Henderson and Jim Henderson are Rylee descendants who have put together the program for the grave marking. They expect relatives from over the area to attend. Richard Higgins, chairman-elect of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, and former commission chairman Tom Oliver are among descendants.

Even Tanner’s Mill, the former grist mill landmark in southern Hall County, has some connection to the Rylees. The Tanners who operated it were Rylee descendants. The mill stood for many years even after it ceased operations, but arsonists destroyed it several years ago.

One famous link to the Rylees was Claire Merritt, who married baseball legend Babe Ruth. Claire lived for a time in White and Jackson counties and worked in an Athens bank before pursuing an entertainment career in New York City, where she met the Babe.

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Dunlap Street in Gainesville Mill is quite different from the days the mill was humming, and children congregated on the ballfield. In its heyday, the street produced a lot of athletes.

It might have started as early as the 1940s with Walter Cooper, a legend in the Northeast Georgia Textile League, including mill villages in Northeast Georgia and South Carolina. One story goes that Walt and Johnny Mize of Piedmont College signed with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, but Cooper returned home while Mize went on to become a Hall of Fame player.

Cooper’s son, Ray, was an outstanding running back at Gainesville High School and competed in track and baseball in college.

Marvin Free lived across the street from the Coopers, was an all-conference running back for the Red Elephants, an all-state baseball player and member of the school’s first state baseball championship team of 1949.

Free’s next-door neighbor was Paul Millwood, an outstanding basketball player at Lyman Hall High School and freshman basketball player at the University of Georgia.

Larry Pardue, who lived across the street from Free, was a three-sport athlete and all-state catcher on the GHS 1949 championship baseball team. He also played professional baseball.

Next door was “Snake” Staton, who played basketball and baseball with the mill teams. Harold Grigg, an all-state third baseman on that 1949 baseball team, also played pro ball.

Dunlap Street dead-ended at the Gainesville Mill ballpark. The balls neighborhood boys used came from foul balls they chased down at mill games and hid until the game was over. The boys also would salvage cracked bats, tack them back together and tape them for use in their pickup summer games.

That was how Dunlap Street became a “street of dreams” for the boys of summer at Gainesville Mill.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.