Gainesville’s downtown square is alive and alighted for Christmas, rekindling memories for those who grew up here or whose children did in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Those memories almost always include the mechanical Santa Claus who waved at children as they stared with wonder through Millner’s store window where Frames You-Nique is today. Piped-in carols from speakers hanging on lamp posts enhanced the holiday atmosphere.
Across Washington Street, McLellan’s downstairs brimmed with large bins of toys waiting for loading into Santa’s sleigh. Myles Godfrey wondered if the dime store had a fan to blow the enticing aroma of roasting Spanish peanuts out to the streets.
Godfrey also as a child looked forward to an animated Christmas display in a jewelry store window on the south side of the square, either miniature ice skaters or a Santa flying his sleigh around.
Frierson-McEver on the north side of the square and Gallant-Belk on the south side were ground zero for shoppers. Frierson’s was the cozy men’s store with creaky, wooden floors and run by the likes of C.R. (Red) Frierson, his son Charlie and later Art Kunzer. Harold Westbrook was one of the lucky ones home for the holidays who worked there along with a phalanx of buddies such as Charlie Langford, Boots Valentine, Hank Jennings and Hugh Pafford.
The C.R. Franklin family kept Gallant-Belk glowing. Sons Julian and Joe early in the season would be putting toys together on the third floor. Their mother Dodie helped as a cashier, and daughters JoAnn and Joyce wrapped gifts while shoppers negotiated the narrow aisles.
The Frankins — except for Julian, he says — were a musical family and played and sang in Christmas programs at churches or clubs. Their home was filled with music as they practiced for almost non-stop events.
The late Bob Schwab, WGGA radio personality, was a big part of Hall County’s Christmas in that era. He was the most prominent Santa, reading letters from children in live broadcasts from Gallant-Belk, “ho-ho-ho-ing” on the radio and on the streets around town. Phil and Shirley Hudgins remember their two daughters believing their Uncle Bob was the real Santa because even after he moved from Gainesville, would call them and ask what they wanted for Christmas.
An inanimate Santa and his reindeer decorated the lawn of the Civic Building, just as a similar one does at the Civic Center today.
The Times and its weekly predecessor, the Eagle, published thick Christmas greeting editions. The late Charles Smithgall, who owned the Eagle before converting it into a daily, had only a four-page press to print the giant paper overflowing with holiday ads. His printers had to haul newspaper plates to a larger press in Dalton. The greeting edition didn’t get to subscribers until after Christmas, and Smithgall was quoted later as saying, “We didn’t know whether we were wishing a Merry Christmas for 1946 or 1947.”
In later years, Dan Clark, retail advertising manager for The Times, recalls the bulky Christmas edition as the largest newspaper of the year. Nearly every local business would gladly have an ad in the paper to thank their customers and spread a little holiday good will. While it was crunch time for Clark and his salespeople, he fondly remembers helping put the paper together and the newsroom filling space with Christmas stories for children, recipes, military personnel pictures and other holiday-related material.
Among stores advertising in those days were Estes, Pilgrim-Estes furniture, Ronald’s women’s store, Mintz, Jay, Gem, Hoyt Ledford, J. Wendell Lancaster and Courtenay’s jewelers, Penney’s, Whatley’s, Piedmont Drug, Imperial Pharmacy, Dixie Drug, Diana Shop, Hulsey’s, Kenwin, Little New Yorker, Little Shop, Jake Sacks, Smart Shop and Whitfield’s.
Martin Furniture, Saul’s, Collegiate Grill and Gem Jewelry are among the few still in business in downtown Gainesville.
It was a simpler and safer time in those days. It wasn’t much of a hassle for a mama to load her children onto the train at the depot at the end of Main Street early in the morning and arrive an hour or so later in downtown Atlanta. They could walk without fear to Rich’s to ride the Pink Pig, eat lunch in the Magnolia Room or S&W Cafeteria, shop other stores and see the city’s Christmas decorations before catching an afternoon train back to Gainesville and be home by supper.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.