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Sacred ground lies under the Hall library renovation site
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Where the under-renovation Hall County Library sits today between Maple and Main streets and along West Academy Street, if not somewhat sacred, surely is historic ground.

The property at one time was owned by Minor Winn Brown, a prominent family whose descendants have played and continue to play important roles in the medical, business, religious and civic life of the community.

The Browns operated a mill and bridge across the Chattahoochee River in Forsyth County before moving to Gainesville in 1839 and building a two-story home facing Gainesville’s public square. The family cemetery was included in the 5 acres Brown owned in what is today’s downtown and where the expanded library is under construction. He accumulated more than 1,000 acres in other parts of Hall County and also owned property in Forsyth, Lumpkin and a couple of other Georgia counties.

Minor Winn Brown became treasurer of Hall County and its second postmaster. He invested in Lumpkin County gold mines, was a merchant and builder.

Brown’s Bridge carries his name because he built the first one across the Chattahoochee at Goddard’s Ford. Though the bridge had to be rebuilt after floods, it retained the Brown name even after Lake Lanier rose and moved its location about a mile upstream.

The Brown family cemetery was moved to Alta Vista Cemetery April 24, 1929. Before the library was built in the late 1960s, part of the property contained the old Wheeler Hotel and later drive-up windows for Gainesville National Bank.

The Wheeler name came from the Judge A.C. Wheeler family. Judge Wheeler bought the property in 1928 from J.H. Washington, executor of the Aurora Hunt estate. The Hunts had been owners of the Dixie-Hunt Hotel on the downtown square.

Mrs. J.R. Styles first leased what became the Wheeler Hotel in 1928, and it had been a boarding house as far back as 1863. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Sparks operated the Wheeler Hotel from 1933 into the 1960s. A building next to the hotel served as the dining room.

Sonny Sykes and his sister Mary Ruth lived in the hotel during their high school days. They were nephew and niece of the Sparks.

Just up Main Street toward the square was the Princeton Hotel at the corner of Washington Street. It also operated a coffee shop and newsstand, and many remember Uncle Jack’s Newsstand near the Wheeler Hotel.

After a bond issue passed in 1967 that provided funds for the library, its location became a mini-controversy. The property the library wanted was owned by the late Ed Shannon and Gainesville National Bank. When the site was selected, the library board wanted to close Brenau Avenue from South Main Street to Maple Street to consolidate the parcels.

Because the City of Gainesville owned the streets, it would be up to commissioners at the time to agree to closing Brenau Avenue at that point. The city was reluctant at first, but finally agreed. Brenau Avenue now begins at the east at Brenau University and dead-ends at the library on Main Street.

During discussion of a site for the library, the old Coca-Cola building on Green Street was considered. That building now houses law and financial management offices. 

The library’s temporary location is the former home of Turner-Wood-Smith insurance agency. It also is the former home of Colonial Stores groceries. Present plans call for it to become a parking deck when the library renovation is completed.

Diagonally across the street at the corner of Brenau Avenue and North Bradford streets stood the Bee Hive Market operated by Toy Minor. It was a “country store” in downtown Gainesville, meats its specialty.

Across from the temporary library is Scott’s Downtown restaurant. That building formerly was an overall factory, but became Pilgrim-Estes Furniture Co. in January 1923 and operated for several decades.

At least three overall factories operated in Gainesville over the years. The one where Scott’s is located today was Smith-Thomas, succeeded by Rome Manufacturing Co. and Bell Manufacturing of Winder in 1917.

Brenau Avenue once was named Seminary Street, obviously because Georgia Baptist Female Seminary at its end was predecessor of Brenau College, now University. At one time part of the street was an extension of Oak Street into downtown Gainesville.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE. 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com

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