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Johnny Vardeman: Banks County wanted immigration to escalate
Johnny Vardeman

The Banks County Observer, owned by Jno. Barton and edited by Dr. V.D. Lockhart, worried about the county losing population in the 1880s. The Banks County 1880 census counted 7,377 residents. The 2010 census showed a population of 18,395, ranked 95th among Georgia’s 159 counties.

At the end of the 19th century, the paper appealed to several families who were leaving Banks County for Arkansas to change their minds and stay home. It also complained that families were sending their children to Gainesville, Toccoa or Dahlonega for their education because the county had no high school. It urged citizens to demand the county build a high school to keep their children close. Advanced education would be needed for the county’s future progress, the paper declared, noting that “the shriek of the iron horse will be heard in Habersham County” soon, referring to the railroad’s arrival in that area.

While immigration today is a much debated and divisive topic, it was controversial in those days, too. But Banks County was in favor of admitting more immigrants, not fewer. The 1880s began a wave of millions of European immigrants to the United States, causing some to try to stem the flow. But the Observer welcomed more immigrants to increase the county’s population.

It reprinted an article from the Marietta Journal that encouraged more immigration. It pointed out the benefits to all segments of business: property owners, merchants, lumber dealers, carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, furniture makers, bankers, doctors, lawyers and even newspapers. “Immigration of the right kind benefits us and them,” the paper wrote. “It will give them good health, good society and good schools.”

But the welcome mat came with conditions: “We shall welcome neither paupers nor idlers, not men depending on the people already here for a living … we are not inviting men who are unable to take care of themselves. We want larger numbers, but we consider quality.”

Homer and Gainesville’s pretty girls

Downtown Homer hasn’t changed much over the years, though Banks County, while still largely rural, has seen business and industry increase considerably the past few decades.

Yet a description of the Homer square in 1888 isn’t too far off from what it looks like today. The Banks County Observer at that time wrote: “The public square of Homer has one of the most beautiful groves of oaks that we ever saw, besides a well of the purest water in the world.”

The old courthouse still stands in Homer’s public square, but court is conducted in a new courthouse built next door in 1983.

While Banks County and Homer might have considered nearby Gainesville as a rival for economic development and population growth, the Observer had kind words for its neighbor: “With the delightful climate of Gainesville, its numerous pretty girls and its refreshing soda water, we do not wonder at the Eagle (newspaper) being a bright paper, overflowing with effervescence.”

Move over, eagle, here comes the mule

What if the American eagle emblem had been replaced by the lowly mule? Somebody way back when suggested just that.

The eagle is the official bird of America’s Great Seal, holding olive branches and arrows in its talons. It is said it took three different committees six years to decide on a design for the Great Seal, not surprising considering how long it takes government to do things today.

The mule suggestion came from a citizen who believed it to be a better representation of America because of its patience and forbearance, but terrifying when roused. The suggestion also was made to erect a monument to the mule because of its role in building the country through humble hard work in the fields.

In fact, there are at least two monuments to the mule in the United States: statues in Muleshoe, Texas, unveiled in 1965, and another in Cumberland, Maryland.

Some have said a turkey was once suggested as America’s emblematic bird. But that idea, if it ever surfaced, was quickly shot down like gobblers at a turkey shoot.

The mule statues have nothing on Gainesville, which is proud of its monument to the chicken in Poultry Park at the intersection of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street. There’s another monument to a chicken in Rhode Island in honor of the Rhode Island Red chicken.

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, Gainesville; 770-532-2326;

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