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Johnny Vardeman: When the first load of lumber came in from Helen in 1913
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When the first train carload of lumber passed through Gainesville on its way to market from Byrd-Matthews Lumber Co. in Helen, it was a significant milestone in the White County town’s history.

That was in January 1913. The lumber was hauled from Helen on a Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad train and eventually headed to New York. It was the first of what was expected to be 10 carloads or 100,000 feet of lumber a day in the fledgling operation in the North Georgia mountains.

The railroad was built to service the booming timber operation, and, in addition, tramways snaked through the mountains to bring fallen trees down to the giant sawmill.

The Gainesville News reported at the time 1,000 people living in Helen, a population burst caused by the building of the lumber company. “There’s no end to the work,” the News proclaimed, noting the vast forests upon which the sawmill could depend for years.

The News’ optimism was validated to a point. Several factors, however, led to the lumber company’s demise, among them World War I, when workers joined the military, business paused for a while, and lumber prices fell.

Morse Brothers Lumber Co. consolidated with Byrd-Matthews in 1918, but the new operation still limped along. The Matthews part of the business left in 1921, eventually selling much of its acreage for as low as $3 per acre. Morse Brothers quit when it ran out of timber. Its last day of operation, May 5, 1931, the sawmill blew its familiar whistle for half an hour.

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A fireman on the old Gainesville Midland Railroad earned a Carnegie Medal for saving a boy’s life. Arthur (Soap) Locket of Jefferson was shoveling coal in the engine of the train pulling out of Jefferson May 9, 1912. He and the engineer, Tom Adair, spotted a child on the tracks, but the train was already going fast enough that it wouldn’t be able to stop in time despite applying the brakes.

Locket crawled through the window of the engine, crept along the running board to the front. Just before the engine reached the boy, Locket leaped off the train, grabbed the child and rolled him off the tracks down an embankment.

The child was Claude H. Small, son of Mr. and Mrs. T.H. Potter of Jefferson.

Locket’s award included $1,000 from the Carnegie Foundation. His medal was displayed in the Gainesville National Bank.

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Tax assessments are in the news again in Hall County and other counties around the state. Controversy ensues whenever appraisals increase the value of property for tax purposes.

In 1913, property in unincorporated Hall County averaged $8.51 per acre. Values varied by area. Gainesville’s average was $21.08, Oakwood’s $11.11, Gillsville $10.80, Tadmore $5.67 and Flowery Branch $7.23.

The tax digest totaled $2 million. Hall County encompassed 419 square miles or 268,222 acres, of which 242, 220 were taxable, not including 25,930 acres in incorporated towns.

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Before the automobile came on the scene, mules and wagons brought products from the farms to the Gainesville square. In 1914, the first bale of cotton came by truck to Gainesville from Forsyth County. The farmer made his sale, got his money, went around town making purchases, cranked up and away he went back to Forsyth County.

“This shows that this section is progressing and up to date,” the Gainesville News reported. “It won’t be very long before this will become a common sight here.”

• • •

Harold Westbrook has good memories of the Harmony Band led by the late longtime Hall County Clerk of Courts Grady Watson. His father and Neal Alton, a member of the band, worked together at Nalley Chevrolet and later operated their own auto repair garage. Harold and his parents would attend the Chevrolet dealership’s family Christmas parties and other events where the band played.

Years later, Harmony Band member Humpy Campbell and his son Tom helped promote Harold’s annual Big Band Bash for Hall County Cancer Society.

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The initials of Elbert Fulton Whitworth, a Lula Council member in the 1930s, were incorrect in last week’s column. He was the father of I.J. (Ike) Whitworth, who was Lula’s mayor in 1975-76.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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