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Johnny Vardeman: When newspapers shutter, who will record the community's memories?
Johnny Vardeman

It is discouraging to read lately about the demise of so many local newspapers. Facebook and other aspects of the digital world are changing the way people get news.

But so much of it is faceless, anonymous, unreliable and just plain dishonest. Many older readers still prefer to hold a real newspaper in their hands with their morning cup of coffee.

It would be tragic if all newspapers went the way of the horse and buggy. It’s not just a reflection of what the community is, it’s an organized historical record. Yes, that record also can be stored digitally, and it has been for years on microfilm. Yet there’s nothing like flipping through a stack of old newspapers and discovering how people lived way back when.

An example is the old Western Herald of Lumpkin County. That newspaper was important because it was the first in the county and was published, though briefly, in the middle of the gold rush. It carried news of mining operations and other developments in the early history of North Georgia.

The paper was started by a couple of Athens newspeople, O.P. Shaw and A.G. Fambrough, who realized the gold boom needed to be reported, besides cashing in on some of the prosperity. They started it in Auraria, which was briefly the county seat and ground zero of mining expedition.

The paper later moved to Dahlonega, finally to Athens, where it was merged with one of that city’s papers.

The Herald lasted only a short time, but it provides an early record of the gold rush that might not be found otherwise.

The first issue, for instance, gave a brief picture of Auraria. The town covered about 40 acres with about 100 dwellings and 18-20 stores, 12-15 law offices, and four to eight taverns. Its population was estimated at 1,000. Lumpkin County’s population was about 10,000. The Indian population was described as small, the newspaper pointing out subtly Cherokees had been run out of their former territory via treaty or otherwise.

The newspaper reported the first cabin in the community was built by William Dean in 1832. Nathaniel Nuckolls built a “home of entertainment,” along with other buildings, earning the community’s one-time name of Nuckollsville. In its heyday, Auraria had a reputation as wild and wooly.

There was a demand for housing with miners apparently sharing whatever shelter they could find and afford. “Board” was running $12 to $15 per month for men and $10-$12 for horses. The newspaper didn’t report on housing for women.

An ad in the paper sought more workers in the mines: “Strong Negro men in demand. $10 per month.” This was three decades before the Civil War, and slave auctions were still being advertised as well as ads seeking to recover runaway slaves.

John C. Calhoun was mentioned prominently in the paper because he owned a gold mine and was a U.S. senator and later vice-president.

The gold rush kept on rolling

The gold rush was in full gear in the 1830s when the Western Herald was published, but it continued for decades, as this item in the Georgia Cracker of Gainesville in 1897 noted:

“The development of the mining interests of Northeast Georgia has assumed vast proportions. Almost every day people of wealth who are interested in the gold mines above Gainesville are in the city and speak enthusiastically of the vast amount of hidden treasures in these hills. Mining has proved very successful, and indications point to even greater success than ever.”

A mighty fine courthouse square

Another piece of history from the Cracker: “The courthouse square is to be enclosed with a nice fence with cooperation between the city council and county commissioners. Granite posts will be drilled with holes, through which an endless chain will be pulled. The new fence will improve the appearance of the courthouse square, which will always be kept neat and clean. The improvement will be hailed with delight by the citizens of the progressive little city of Gainesville, and there always will be a pretty little park in the center of the city.”

Indeed, there has been a pretty little park in the center of Gainesville, having survived a tornado, several renovations and a few controversies over the years.

In the early history of Hall County, the courthouse was in the middle of the square where the Civil War monument “Old Joe” stands today.

Several of those granite posts survive, perhaps like the one on the Brenau University campus.

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;

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