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Johnny Vardeman: Love bloomed in aftermath of 1903 storm
Johnny Vardeman

The June 1903 tornado that killed more than 100 and destroyed dozens of homes and businesses was a devastating blow to Gainesville.

But out of that tragedy came a romance that seemed to lift the spirits of the community in the aftermath of the recovery.

This obituary story for Mrs. Lillie Downey appeared in The Times in 1962.
The story of the popular Dr. James Downey wooing one of the nurses who came to help heal the injured is pretty well known. But just how close people followed the romance and what it meant to them is revealed in newspaper accounts in the months after the storm.

Here’s how the Gainesville News reported the engagement of Dr. Downey and nurse Lillie Farrara:

“Mrs. Lucie F. Farrara announced the engagement of her daughter, Lillie Olivette, to Dr. James H. Downey of New Holland, wedding to take place in early winter at the bride’s home at 41 Ashby St. in Atlanta.

“The above announcement brings to light a pretty romance which has sprung from the great calamity which befell the city last June. When the call went out from Gainesville for trained nurses to help care for the wounded ... Miss Lillie Farrara of Atlanta was one of the first to respond.  She was assigned to the hospital at New Holland where Dr. James H. Downey, the company’s physician, was in charge.

“For many days physician and trained nurse watched over the bedside of the wounded, and many lives are due to their skill and unceasing vigil. There sprang between them during this time affinity of feeling and soon held them captive, and Cupid’s work resulted in this announcement.

“Dr. Downey is a skilled physician and a most estimable gentleman. The bride-elect is a most charming young woman. When at work in the hospital last summer she showed herself to be an aspiring woman of many lovely traits of character, and her unselfish work during the calamity would in itself endear her to the people of Gainesville, who will cordially welcome her return to the city as Mrs. Downey.”

The wedding was Nov. 17, 1903, six months after the two had met. Then, the News commented: “This is the happy culmination of a beautiful romance dating back to the terrible disaster that visited Gainesville last June. (The bride) is a beautiful and accomplished young woman, yet her modesty and worth make her unconscious of her own attraction.”

Though a trained nurse, Mrs. Downey was a mere teenager, 16 years old, when she married the doctor, 24 years her senior. Surely there were some “tsk, tsks” murmured around town as the romance developed and resulted in marriage.

But the community held Dr. Downey in high esteem, and apparently embraced his bride  through her dedicated work on behalf of the tornado’s injured and her later involvement in the community.

Both the Downeys became prominent in civic and social life of Hall County. They lived on Green Street for a while, later moving to East Spring. Nationally recognized, the doctor made numerous presentations at medical conferences. He organized the Ninth District Medical Society. His invention of a special table to treat fractures made headlines across the country. He left New Holland to place his practice in Gainesville, first an office in his home, then a small infirmary on Spring Street in 1909. The well-known Downey Hospital on what was then Sycamore Street went up in 1912, the only one between Atlanta and Greenville, S.C.

The 1936 tornado that killed more than 200 in Gainesville also affected the Downeys. Though damaged, the hospital overflowed with injured from the storm.

The Downey name was associated with numerous businesses and community endeavors.

Mrs. Downey made a name for herself. She was active in local organizations from the start and was prominent in the state Federation of Women’s Clubs. She and her husband were active in Grace Episcopal Church.

But perhaps Mrs. Downey is remembered most for her role in a library movement in Hall County. Over the years, attempts at establishing a permanent public library had fallen short. She started one in the basement of the Episcopal Church. The church and its library, too, were victims of the 1936 tornado. As Mrs. Downey generated more interest in a county facility, commissioners finally agreed to providing space in the new courthouse that was built after the tornado. It was in its basement, too, but it was a start. Mrs. Downey’s library donated what books it salvaged from the storm, and the county began to provide funds for more books and part-time help.

Many credit her efforts toward a “real” library with what is now a countywide service with branches in five locations.

Dr. Downey died in 1937. Mrs. Downey lived until 1962. Both are buried in Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville.

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; email