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Johnny Vardeman: School years were aligned with calendar in early 1900s
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As a new school year begins in a few weeks — much too soon, many students, teachers and parents say — look back to the early 1900s when the school year was the calendar year.

At least that was the case for Hall County schools, then a fledging system just trying to get things going in a systematic way. Before an actual coordinated system of public schools existed, there were tiny independent schools all over the place.

In 1907, the school year was 120 days compared to 180 today. The first day was after the Jan. 1 New Year’s holiday. Classes ordinarily ran from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. A 20-minute recess was required both morning and afternoon, and lunch was an hour and a half. The long lunch hour probably was because there were no cafeterias as there are today. Students not bringing their lunch probably walked to their homes if they were nearby.

Those first Hall County teachers were paid $1 to $1.20 per student, the difference probably based on a teacher’s experience and the student’s advancement. The school board could reduce a teacher’s salary if work wasn’t up to standard. That was teacher accountability back in the day.

Teaching wasn’t allowed on Saturday. Students had to pay for their textbooks, which were used for courses in reading, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, geography, physiology, civics and agriculture.

Much of North Georgia agricultural at that time, children had their chores on the farm, and school schedules were adjusted to provide time for them to help their parents with their crops or livestock.

T.H. Robertson was an early school superintendent.

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Gainesville had a fire department in the early 1900s, but much of the firefighting relied on volunteers. They weren’t paid, but they were exempt from street taxes, a primary source of revenue for the city at the time. The city disbanded the volunteer organization, opting instead for four paid firefighters, who were paid $45 a month.

The chief had to be an engineer also because he had to maintain what equipment the department had at the time, including a steam wagon.

Besides that Sibley steamer, the department also had two horses, two hose wagons, 2,200 feet of hose and four ladders.

While that might sound skimpy compared to today’s standards, the department was considered up to date and respected by Northeast Georgia neighbors. In January 1907, Toccoa officials called on the department to battle a fire that destroyed much of that town’s business district.

A special train was sent to Gainesville to rush firefighters and their equipment to Toccoa to help. However, before the train left, word was sent that the fire had been contained.

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The city of Gainesville in 1907 inventoried much of what we might call public works assets today. They included six mules, four two-horse wagons, two sanitary wagons, harnesses, seven shovels, three axes, four forks, two loads of hay, 50 bushels of corn, one steel scrape and three log chains.

With all this, the city maintained the streets and sidewalks and performed other miscellaneous tasks. Besides a handful of paid employees, able-bodied men for a time were required to work on streets or pay a fee to get out of it. As today, prisoners also worked out their time on the roads.

One of those jobs that year was extending Park Street to Race Street, which is now Boulevard. Park Street runs from Sherwood Shopping Center to Boulevard today. Race Street is a short street that starts at Spring and crosses Jesse Jewell Parkway to Hunter Street.

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When Gainesville’s First Baptist Church began building its new home in 1907 at the corner of Washington and Green Street downtown, the projected cost was $25,000, but it ended up costing $75,000 by the time the construction was complete in 1909. The church paid $8,000 for the lot that was the home site of John Martin. The Rev. O.J. Copeland was pastor at the time.

The site was considered prime not just because it was in the center of the city, but because three street car lines converged there. A fine building stood there until a fire destroyed it in 1960.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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