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Johnny Vardeman: These handprints on a Gainesville basement wall stay for a reason
09222019 VARDEMAN 1
Jane Swetenburg Howard, who now lives in Atlanta, said her mother started the tradition of having friends and family put their handprints on the home's basement walls. They painted sections of the concrete block wall black. Then when friends came over, they provided washable white paint for them to dip their hands in and press them against the wall. Johnnie Swetenburg then would write the names under the handprints. - photo by Johnny Vardeman

When Evie and Buddy Langston moved into their Dixon Drive home in Gainesville in 2005, white handprints covered the walls in their basement.

Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman
They dared not paint over them, instead embracing them as a unique piece of artwork and history and adding their own family’s handprints.

The Langstons were continuing a tradition started by the previous homeowners, Johnnie and Ray Swetenburg, longtime and beloved Hall County residents. The basement was a gathering place, especially for the Swetenburg children’s friends.

Jane Swetenburg Howard, who now lives in Atlanta, said her mother started the tradition. They painted sections of the concrete block wall black. Then when friends came over, they provided washable white paint for them to dip their hands in and press them against the wall. Johnnie Swetenburg then would write the names under the handprints.

The Langstons say the wall reads like a who’s who of Gainesville, many of the names of today’s prominent citizens; some are deceased.

Jane said their basement was a place for socials, school play practices, choruses, church youth groups, ballroom dancing, after-football-game parties and other functions. She remembers classmates such as Philip Wilheit practicing for annual talent shows. So many people were in and out, a dumbwaiter was installed to deliver food from the kitchen upstairs.

When their wall ran out of space, the Swetenburgs put together a large elephant, a symbol of the mascot for the Gainesville High School Red Elephants.  Visitors then would write their names in red on the elephant. And when that ran out of room, a large guitar was made for people to sign.

Jane graduated from Gainesville High School in 1962, her sister Bowie Frazer, now of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959, and her brother Raymond, a pediatrician in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1968. The Swetenburgs’ piece of the wall reads, “Daddy, Mama, Johnnie Bowie, Jane and Raymond.”

Other sections name such people as Jim Howard, Charles Edmondson, Abbott Hayes, Walton Moore, Allen Carter, Linda Whatley, Jimmy Richardson, Ed Jared, A.D. Watson, Gene Shelton, Betsy Thurmond, Dee Lawson, Barbara Ward, Parks Davis, Hugh Hosch, Nancy Hudgins, Linda Jackson and Charlie Benson, among many others.

Her parents wanted their downstairs to be an inviting venue for their children’s high school and college friends, Jane said. The basement originally was a dreary place, she said. They livened it up with a ping pong table, billiards and even a shuffleboard court.

As for the Langstons, they’re hoping the wall will be preserved, though any future residents might not know the history or recognize any of the names. Their part of the handprint walls has “Buggy” at the top. That’s Buddy, a retired pediatrician; one of his little patients couldn’t pronounce “Dr. Buddy.” Then there’s “Grammie,” who is Evie, and their children, spouses and grandchildren, Andy, Frances and Lucas, Tom, Grace and Mae.

Evie values history. When they moved into the Swetenburg house, she had the kitchen cabinets repainted, but not one of the inside doors. It contains Johnnie Swetenburg’s important telephone numbers, including neighbors, her beauty shop, Riverside Pharmacy, Green’s Grocery, gas company and housekeeper.

A Swetenburg legacy 

The Swetenburgs were important parts of the community. Ray, vice president of Chicopee Manufacturing Co., was an elder and trustee of First Presbyterian Church, chaired the Gainesville School Board and Hall County Hospital Authority, was on the task force establishing Gainesville Junior College and active in Rotary and Chamber of Commerce. He and Johnnie were charter members of Chattahoochee Country Club. She helped start the Christian Education Center, now Center Point, and was active in various civic clubs, including the Service League. Ray was an all-star athlete at The Citadel and is a member of its sports Hall of Fame.

The Swetenburgs were married 59 years. He died at age 92 in 1996; she died at age 90 in 2005. Both are buried in Alta Vista Cemetery. Gainesville’s First Presbyterian Church named its fellowship hall Swetenburg Hall in their honor in 1997.

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 NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy1856@gmail.com

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