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Column: Downtown Gainesville has a tragic history of large fires
Johnny Vardeman

Downtown Gainesville has had a history of disastrous fires.

In 1851, practically the whole downtown area was destroyed. That was in an era of mostly wooden buildings, and there was no fire-fighting organization.

A fire department called the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Co. did organize early in 1876, but it had no equipment. The city council later provided a “hook and ladder wagon” for the purely volunteer company, and an old stable downtown was rented to house it.

Just three years later on a cold and damp January night, the entire downtown again was threatened with a fire. Actually, the fire was noticed about 3 a.m., and a man asleep in an upstairs room in one of the building barely escaped. Fire bells rang, and it was reported almost everybody in town, including children, ran outside their homes to see what was going on.

Almost the entire north side of the square, where such businesses as Atlas Pizza and Inman Perk are today, was ablaze or threatened. Five brick buildings burned. They included several law offices, a tailor shop, millinery shop and other small stores.

One of the buildings was built and owned by A.D. Candler, future governor of Georgia.

The North Georgian newspaper, owned by John Blats, lost its building and all its equipment. The publisher appealed to those who owed him money to pay up so he could rebuild and eventually resume publication.

The 10 or 12 volunteers fought the blaze valiantly and were able to keep it from spreading throughout the downtown. However, more credit was given to a heavy downpour of rain that doused the flames and wet the interiors of some of the buildings whose roofs were already gone.

A hotel owned by the Stringer family was spared.

The firefighters had only the little hook and ladder wagon that the city had provided three years earlier to work with. That got the attention of citizens and those who owned property around the square. It was the third downtown fire within the last three years.

People petitioned the city to buy a steam fire engine. The city did provide the volunteers with a hand engine and other equipment. Seven years later, the city purchased a steam fire engine.

Another fire hit downtown Gainesville hard in 1911. It started in Palmour Hardware Co. and spread to Castleberry’s store, Jake Sacks, First National Bank and Allen Brothers. The Arlington Hotel, where Hunt Towers is today, was threatened but undamaged.

Still another fire was in 1925 when the Hunt Opera House at the corner of Washington and Bradford burned. Several other buildings in that block were heavily damaged.

Other downtown fires took Clary’s Five and Ten on Washington Street and Estes at the corner of Washington and Bradford. First Baptist Church at the corner of Green and Washington, where the old Regions Bank was recently located, burned in February 1960. Pete Tankersley’s sporting goods store just off the square was another big downtown fire.

Virtual baseball nothing new

Robert Sapp, former University of Georgia baseball coach who lives in Hall County and has conducted a youth baseball camp at Flowery Branch for several years, says the artificial sound effects for the fanless Atlanta Braves baseball games are nothing new. Here’s how he tells it:

“I grew up in South Georgia listening on the radio every night to the Atlanta Crackers, Atlanta’s top minor league team.  Ralph “Country” Brown and Bob Montag were my heroes.  Jack Roberts of Gainesville also played with the Crackers later on.  Roberts was my freshman baseball coach at UGA. 

“The home games were played and broadcast at Ponce de Leon Park across from what was then Sears Roebuck, now Ponce Market, but the away games were broadcast from the studio in downtown Atlanta.  Game action was sent to the studio via a Western Union teletype machine (no TV) with crowd noise in the background.  Two sticks were hit together sounding like a ball hitting a bat when contact was made.  Listening to the radio, one could not tell the difference than if the broadcaster was at the game.  It was just as exciting as today’s broadcast.”

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, or His column publishes weekly.

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