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Johnny Vardeman: Some wanted to kick football out of City Park
Johnny Vardeman

They’ve been playing football forever at Gainesville’s City Park on Green Street/Ronnie Green Parkway.

The football field itself was graded in the early 1900s. Fans would line the sidelines to watch games because there were no stands. Some would watch from the surrounding hills, which formed a natural bowl for the field. Permanent seating wouldn’t come until the Civilian Conservation Corps built stone stands in the 1930s, and they continue to serve as home-side seats today. The field was lighted in 1938.

Some Gainesville residents at times over the years wanted the park and field used for other purposes. For instance, before a city high school was built on Washington Street where the Gym of ’36 building serves as offices today, there was a movement to build in City Park. That notion was denied, of course, and the old Gainesville High School building stood on Washington from the early 1920s till the mid-1950s.

A more serious threat to the football field at City Park came in 1970. Believing the park was inadequate to serve thousands who might attend championship games, a campaign was started to build a new stadium at Gainesville High School, now sitting between Pearl Nix Parkway and Woodsmill Road. Hundreds signed a petition to city officials to hold a referendum on issuing $475,000 in bonds to build the stadium.

Voters decided against the issue 985-646. Football fans apparently wanted to maintain the tradition of City Park football. It was hallowed ground where their grandfathers and probably great-grandfathers starred. Others couldn’t see the expense of building a new stadium, and the economy at the time wasn’t right.

Improvements were made to the park that year anyway. Tennis courts were added, and in the years since, youth baseball fields were constructed. High school baseball for years was played at City Park, the diamond on the Civic Center side of the field, and the football field serving as the outfield. High school baseball now is played at Ivey-Watson Park off of Dawsonville Highway.

A track, practice football field and softball field are located on the Gainesville High School campus.

Today’s City Park features a modern field house, high-tech scoreboard and renovated press and concession facilities.

Besides high school football, youth leagues often play there, and Gainesville High soccer and lacrosse teams use the field. It holds many memories for those who stomped on that sacred sod, those who cheered in the stands, stalked the sidelines or otherwise have some connection to the park. It is one of the oldest high school stadiums in the state, and it most likely will continue to make many more memories in decades to come.

Segregated champions

City Park football field, called Bobby Gruhn Field for the longtime successful GHS coach, also was home field for the Fair Street Tigers, when the all-black school was in existence. They won back-to-back state championships on the field in 1956-57. State championship games including Gainesville’s Red Elephants also were played on the field, but GHS won the modern state championship under quarterback Deshaun Watson at the Georgia Dome in 2012. Gainesville teams in the mid-1920s also were declared state champions.

More than football on that old ballot

The 1970 referendum on a new football stadium wasn’t the only vote that year. Voters cast ballots in another city election, and one of the most interesting state elections in history. That was the year Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination for Georgia governor over former governor Carl Sanders. The lieutenant governor’s race was just as interesting as Lester Maddox beat Zell Miller. Carter defeated Republican Hal Suit in the general election winning 21 counties in Northeast Georgia.

In the 1970 9th District congressional race, incumbent Democrat Phil Landrum of Jasper beat Republican Bob Cooper, a Gainesville lawyer.

When Maddox was governor, Miller served as his chief of staff. Miller later became lieutenant governor, serving 1975-91 before winning two terms as governor and serving as U.S. senator.

Maddox had won his 1966 election through the state House of Representatives. He had lost the popular vote to Republican Howard (Bo) Callaway, but neither won a majority, throwing the decision to the Democrat-controlled House. Maddox had won the Democratic nomination over Ellis Arnall in a runoff.

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, Ga. 30501; phone (770) 532-2326; e-mail