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Johnny Vardeman: A look at when the 'Fourth Side of the Square' was bustling
06302019 VARDEMAN 1
Photo courtesy Johnny Vardeman.

The “Fourth Side of the Square,” or the Spring Street side of Gainesville’s downtown square, has been in the news a lot lately.

Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman
That’s because the proposed mixed-use development on the vacant property fell through. There are new hopes for the property now because it is owned by Doug Ivester, New Holland native and former chairman and chief executive officer for Coca-Cola. The feeling is the retired Hall County investor will see to it that some quality development will rise from what is now a city parking lot.

In recent years, the property on Spring Street between Main Street and what used to be Bradford has been referred to as “the Belk lot.” That is because Gallant-Belk used to anchor that side of the square at the corner of Spring and Bradford. It had arrived in 1934 to provide a department-store size boost to downtown Gainesville.

But along came big box stores, strip shopping centers and malls, and downtown began to deteriorate, Gallant-Belk moving to Sherwood Plaza, then Lakeshore Mall. Gallant-Belk later became Belk-Gallant before becoming just plain “Belk” as it is today.

Finally, stores on the Spring Street side of the square and down Bradford and one side of Main Street were leveled in the late 1970s to make way for the Georgia Mountains Center, which opened in 1980.

The Mountains Center fell short of hopes to rejuvenate downtown, and Brenau University now occupies that space. However, downtown has risen from barely on life support to a livelier place today with a variety of eating and drinking choices and shops despite a few vacant buildings.

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps provide a clue as to how downtown, specifically the Spring Street side of the square, has changed. The 1886 map shows only a hardware, general store, grocery and a fruit stand. By 1893, according to the maps, the Spring Street side was filling up from Main to Bradford with a bank, general stores and buildings under construction.

The 1950s to the 1960s downtown was at its peak. It was the regional trading center, and the place to shop, eat, and if you were traveling, stay in a hotel.

The 1952 city directory listed these businesses on the Spring Street side of the square: Gallant-Belk, Kenwin Shop, Saul’s, Whatley’s Pharmacy, Gem Jewelry, Mintz Jewelry, Whitfield’s and Debbie Shop. Harry Tucker also operated a men’s shop/tailor shop in there somewhere for years.

Saul’s, of course, later moved to the corner of Main and Washington, Gem and Whatley’s to the Bradford side of the square, Mintz to Washington Street. All are now closed, Saul’s and Gem shutting down after decades just a few months ago.

Besides the Fourth Side of the Square, stores in the same block between Main and Bradford are long gone. In the 1950s, going down Bradford from Spring were Farmer’s Café, a children’s clothing store, beauty shop, Goforth Hardware, Birdsey Flour Mills, H & W. Cafeteria, Tyner Drug Co. and Piggly-Wiggly. L.B. Adams also operated a clothing store on Bradford for a while. Going south on Main from Spring were such businesses as Polly’s Beauty Shop, Gainesville Hardware, Terrel Beauty College, Hardy’s Studio, the Gainesville News, N.C. White photographer, Royal Arts Studio and Western Auto.

WDUN radio station also got its start upstairs over Hardy’s Studio.

People will be watching now to see how this latest version of the Fourth Side of the Square will fare as another chapter in the history of downtown Gainesville unfolds.

The Whitfields did it all

Larry Whitfield, who now lives in Athens, helped his father, Adger Whitfield, in the Whitfield’s clothing store on Spring Street. Larry worked in the store during his days at Gainesville High School and at the University of Georgia. On Saturday mornings, he would have to sweep the floor and wash the windows. After that, he drove an old Plymouth around a “collection route” to collect money customers owed the store.

Adger Whitfield would allow customers from Buford to New Holland to buy on credit and never charged them interest, his son said. During World War II when gas was scarce, Adger Whitfield would put a bicycle in the trunk of his car, drive to a residential area such as New Holland, then hop on his bike to collect from customers.

Men’s clothing was on one side of the store, women’s the other. When Larry Whitfield worked in the store as a teenager, he recalls an awkward moment when he had to sell a bra to a woman. Larry and his mother, Lucy, would work in the days before Christmas. Larry remembers his first paycheck at Christmas very well, “A whole $10 for a week.”

On Sundays, Larry would work as a soda jerk for Piedmont Drugs on the square.

A scales stood at the front of Whitfield’s, and Larry built a coin collection from pennies dropped in by people learning their weight and fortunes.

Adger Whitfield also owned stores in Newberry, South Carolina, and Commerce. Larry would go with him to New York City on buying trips to stock the stores. The two also went to New York every year to meet foreign exchange students who were destined for homes in Northeast Georgia. Adger Whitfield was district lieutenant governor of Kiwanis, which arranged exchange students for other clubs in the area.

Larry’s father also was a magician and performed shows with Larry Kleckley, who owned a sportings goods store on Main Street. He also was a deacon in First Baptist Church on Green Street.

Whitfield’s opened around 1935 and closed about 1962.

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 N.E., Gainesville; 770-532-2326; vardeman1956@att.net.

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