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Johnny Vardeman: Bennett clan lived and told colorful tales of early Hall
Johnny Vardeman

In researching family history, Dallas Gay of Gainesville has discovered some interesting stories about his ancestors, mostly Bennetts, who were pioneer settlers of Hall County.

The story of Nevil Bennett killing a deer on Gainesville’s public square in the early 1800s before the county was officially formed is told often. The Georgia Cracker, a Hall County newspaper, interviewed him in 1897 when he was more than 90 years old.

“Bennett was here before Gainesville was organized and killed deer and picked chinquapins and chestnuts where the public square is now situated,” the article read. “The red man was here in large numbers in those days and was a familiar figure.”

That Bennett was the son of James and Winny Byrd Bennett. Nevil was born Sept. 20, 1806, in South Carolina, and his family moved here around 1812 with other Bennetts. He married Nancy Smith on Aug. 26, 1830. She was the daughter of Sarah and Nathaniel Smith, who was the first owner of what would become Wood’s Mill on the Chattahoochee River and how Woodsmill Road in Gainesville got its name.

Nevil owned property in northern Hall County that later became known as Quillians. The Bennetts later moved to near what is now Candler Road. Nevil died in 1899 and is buried in Hopewell United Methodist Church cemetery. 

Joel Bennett Sr. was in the 1820 Census of Hall County and bought land in what is now the Flowery Branch area in 1823 and lived there with his wife, Elizabeth Norman, until his death in 1851. 

Bennett’s son, Joel Jr., was interviewed by the Gainesville Eagle in 1887 when he was 74 years old. He was described as “hale and hearty as many a man of 50. Mr. Bennett says that he has not failed to follow the plow every season since he was large enough to hold up the plow handles; he has never worn his shirt with the collar buttoned in 60 years; he has never missed a meal of victuals on account of sickness in 40 years; he has not gone to bed without a chew of tobacco in his mouth in 30 years.”

A reporter for the Flowery Branch Journal interviewed Joel Jr. in 1890, but the article didn’t appear until 1898 in the Gainesville Eagle and excerpts in the Gainesville News.

The article read: “My name is Joel Bennett, and I am 79 years old. My father built this house 65 years ago. I have been living on these premises for 70 years. I have five children living: Peggie, Polly, Betsy, Lee and Norm. They have about 40 acres of land apiece.

“I do not read or write; took a notion to run off after the gals, and I got no l’arning. 

“In those early days, everybody made as much whiskey as they pleased. No fighting with knives and pistols then. I haven’t touched a drop of liquor in 10 years and never expect to again. It is the greatest curse in our land. Haven’t been to Atlanta since the (Civil) War.

“Yes, Spout Springs is pretty old. The spout that carries the water from the spring has been there ever since I can remember, and the Indians couldn’t tell how long it had been there. I have an indistinct recollection of the strangers being buried on the hill. They were travelers from North Carolina, and the young man was sick only a short while. Let me see; that’s been more than 50 years ago, and I remember they had a hard time getting lumber for the coffin.

“I have seen 1,000 Indian ponies grazing on the hill out there where the town is. There was plenty of Indians here — no preaching, no law. Only two white families here and plenty of wolves. Deer and turkeys were plentiful, but not bear.

“When I first saw Gainesville ’twas only a pole house for a justice court once a month. Oh, yes, I go to Gainesville now quite often, and always walk. 

“I have never had my shirt buttoned since 1839. I never wore a white-washed shirt bosom in my life, and I never had a collar and cravat (necktie) and never expect to.”

Gay’s research includes Bennett wills and a map showing where Joel Bennett settled near what is now Flowery Branch. In 1823, he purchased Land Lot 117 in the 8th District from Miriam Vickers and lived there until he died in 1851. The property extended from what is now Flowery Branch west to the stream known as Flowery Branch and where Wayne’s Lake and store were located. He lived on the east side of the stream, and Joel Jr. lived on the west side.

Gay doesn’t know his exact relation to the Bennetts, but the line goes back six generations.

More about local history to come next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose columns appear Sundays; email.