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Johnny Vardeman: Dawsonville paper lobbied to lure state capital north
Johnny Vardeman

Maude Howard Garrett and her husband owned the Dawson County Advertiser in the 1940s.

They were a colorful team who struggled to put out a weekly newspaper that was only four pages most weeks. That was when Dawson County was still a mostly rural county, the county seat Dawsonville a tiny town, its courthouse in the middle of it and few businesses on the public square.

Mrs. Garrett’s father, John A. Thomas, owned the paper 21 years, having come to Dawsonville from Dahlonega. He paid for the paper with a gold watch to E.W. Richardson, a renowned fiddler, who was happy to get out of the newspaper rat race and back to fiddlin’ for a living.

Mrs. Garrett, musing over her years in the business, commented that “hand-set type isn’t hard,” and the “Washington hand-press is a good muscle developer.” In those days, up until about the 1950s, many small weekly newspapers continued to set type by hand. That involved picking up each letter and placing it beside others to make a word, a sentence, a paragraph and a column of reading material. The press she referred to was operated by hand in the old days of printing.

Linotype machines that set type mechanically and obviously much faster than by hand, came along and were widely used until offset printing came about, using different methods of setting type in a photographic process. The digital age has changed printing even more drastically, and the whole process from writer to press is vastly different, even faster and more efficient.

When Georgia legislators half-heartedly suggested in the late 1940s that it might want to move the capital from Atlanta, Mrs. Garrett weighed in: “We suggest Dawsonville ... where the robins and mockingbirds sing sweetly on your windowsill as they nest in the shrubs nearby, where the coveys of partridges eat the crumbs from your backyard — the lowing of the cows, the neigh of the mare wake you in the morn when you settled for another nap after threatening to wring the rooster’s neck at 3 a.m.” 

Dawson County had a reputation as a mecca for moonshining. It annually holds a Moonshine Festival to reminisce about those days. It also has a stock car racing museum in its city hall. That’s because moonshine and racing are connected in the county’s past. Racing actually is in its present with Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR star Bill Elliott, among today’s drivers.

The story goes that car racing became popular because those running illegal whiskey to Atlanta and other markets often would have to outrun sheriff’s and revenue officers. They became skilled drivers on those twisting mountain roads.

Dawson County had legal whiskey before the peak white lightning era. But a slate of new county commissioners took office in 1949, and their first act was to ban the sale of beer and wine, much to the delight of those whose primary or sideline vocation was minding distilleries in the backwoods of the county.

Those commissioners who voted to ban alcoholic beverages were J.T. Whitmire, chairman, Henry Talleys and Farish Ledbetter.

In those days almost every week would find a newspaper story about some liquor still being cut down, not only in Dawson County, but counties all over North Georgia, including Hall. Sheriff’s officers took pains to contact the newspaper to get their pictures in the paper, axes in hands, chopping up stills, jars of white lightning nearby.

Moonshiners naturally hid their operations as far back in the woods as they could, but sometimes stills cropped up in unexpected places. For instance, Gainesville police found an operation in the basement of a home on North Bradford Street in the late 1940s. Not that it isn’t today, but back then it was considered a prime neighborhood where one wouldn’t expect to find a liquor still.

The offender was pretty clever in hiding his operation, however. After getting a lead that the still was in the basement, police had to make two trips before they found it.

Many remember the Skyview Drive-In on Atlanta Highway in Gainesville the first of its type in North Georgia. How many remember, however, that Skyview wasn’t the original name? It first was called Family Open Air Theater until movie owner John Thompson bought it in 1949.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; e-mail.

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