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Johnny Vardeman: Front page of Atlanta paper covered 1903 tornado here
Johnny Vardeman

It’s coincidental that Hall County is marking its 200th year in official existence, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is celebrating its 150th year in business.

Actually, there used to be just a morning Atlanta Constitution and an afternoon Atlanta Journal.

The AJC, as it’s commonly called today, is publishing what it calls “Throwback Thursday,” a series of front pages from its past. A couple of weeks ago, it featured a tragic date in Hall County’s history. The front page was dated June 3, 1903, the day a tornado struck Gainesville, killing more than 100 people. 

But it must have been a day after the tornado because the storm hit between noon and 1 p.m. June 3. Gainesville telephone lines were down, so somebody had to hustle to get that news to Atlanta.

Many of those killed in the tornado were children who worked at Gainesville Mill on the south side of Gainesville. Both Gainesville Mill and New Holland were damaged by the tornado. Gainesville Cotton Mill, as it was known then, had been operating only a couple of years and New Holland just a few months. New Holland’s village lost numerous homes, and many residents there lost their lives.

What the Atlanta Constitution front page that day shows how people all over the state came to the aid of the community and its victims. It already had reports of assistance coming in to Hall County from all over. It listed the names of individuals, companies and organizations contributing to a fund the newspaper started to help. A total that first day was $6,120, most of which came from Atlanta, but more than $2,500 from other Georgia cities, sizable sums in that era. Contributions ranged from $1 to $100. Atlanta had called a mass meeting of citizens to come to Gainesville’s rescue.

Neighboring Toccoa was especially providing immediate help to Gainesville with individual contributions plus several of its doctors rushed to the city to care for those injured.

The newspaper reported, “Georgia’s heart went out to Gainesville yesterday. The quick response to the appeals made by Gov. Terrell and Mayor Parker, subscriptions were raised in towns and cities from the mountains to the sea.” Athens had sent $850, Savannah $500, tiny Social Circle $75 and Senoia $15.75.

Southern Railroad provided free transportation to aid workers, doctors and nurses.

At the time, the number of confirmed deaths was 80, and the newspaper identified fatalities as well as injured, segregating them by race. More than 25 of those were at New Holland, and many of them were children, including at least two infants.

A.S. Hardy, who was publisher of the Gainesville News at the time, had written a story for the Atlanta paper on the scope of the storm. He reported survivors had worked all day and through the night recovering bodies, helping the injured and clearing away debris.

Gainesville’s Mayor P.N. Parker also had called a mass meeting the night after the storm and collected about $5,000, the city appropriating $1,000 and the county $2,000. Mundy’s store on Main Street was collecting contributions from citizens and those coming to see the storm’s damage. Hardy reported hundreds of sightseers had filled the trains arriving in Gainesville. The trains also brought coffins and undertakers from surrounding towns.

Hall County was hard hit by that 1903 tornado, and 33 years later an even more devastating tornado would plow through the middle of Gainesville April 6, 1936, killing more than 200. Just as in 1903, people from all over the state, and even parts of the country, pitched in to help the city recover.

Who’s No. 1? Dewberry Baptist Church No. 1 might be No. 2, and vice-versa.

According to Sybil McRay, late Hall County historian, in the late historian James Dorsey’s book, “History of Hall County, Vol. 1,” Dewberry No. 2 on Cleveland Road near Gainesville was organized about 1821. Dewberry No. 1 was organized in 1840. When the single Dewberry Baptist congregation split in 1840, the newer church called itself No. 1, and the original church No. 2. No. 2 kept the church’s minutes.

While Hall County celebrates its bicentennial this year, Dewberry Baptist No. 2 will be marking its 200th year in a couple of years. Plans already are being discussed by church members on how they will mark the anniversary.

More local history coming next week.

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