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Column: A few of the movers and shakers who made Gainesville what it is today
Johnny Vardeman

It would take a thick book to list all the people down through 200 years who have brought Gainesville to where it is.

But let’s list a few in the city’s earlier years.

Ephraim Johnson is called the “father of Methodism” and was the first Methodist in Hall County. He paid $150 for the old log courthouse on the public square and got people from all religions and no religion to move it to the corner of Church and South Bradford streets to become the First Methodists’ first home.

He was prominent in the city’s early development and was looked to for counsel and leadership in most every initiative the people considered.

H.H. Dean was a lawyer whose large home “Hillcrest” graced a hilltop on North Green Street on what is now First Baptist Church’s campus. He served as mayor, city commissioner and was influential in state politics. As a lawyer, he won 40 of 44 murder cases and represented such high-power clients as Georgia Power, Southern Railway and Pacolet Manufacturing Co. Dean built a downtown building and served as president of the military academy that became Riverside. His son, Austin, was editor of the Gainesville Eagle, predecessor of The Times.

The Candlers, Ashfords and Rombergs, related one way or another, achieved a lot for Gainesville. A.D. Candler, of course, served as mayor, state legislator, secretary of state, congressman and governor of Georgia. He also built several homes and businesses around town, supervised the building of a railroad and became its president, among many other accomplishments.

His descendants included the Romberg family who were in the forefront of most worthwhile civic endeavors. George Ashford, son of one of Candler’s daughters, served as mayor and on the city commission for several years.

Dr. J.H. Downey came to Gainesville as Pacolet Manufacturing Co.’s physician. He heroically treated the injured in the 1903 tornado and established Downey Hospital. He received national renown for his achievements in treating fractures.

Jim and Aurora Hunt are known for operating the Arlington Hotel, later to become the Dixie-Hunt. But their philanthropic endeavors, especially for then-Brenau College, helped the community in many ways. Their landholdings were immense inside and outside Hall County. At one time they were the largest taxpayers in the county.

Beulah Rucker Oliver gained the respect of the White community during days of segregation with her focus on education. She established schools that enhanced Black students’ schooling and provided skills for jobs.

You cannot list movers and shakers in Gainesville’s history without crediting the Dunlap family, dating all the way back to Sam C., Edgar Sr. and James A. (Bubba) Dunlap. Those men’s influence affected everything from the airport, to location of textile mills, to a junior college and a highway connecting Gainesville to Interstate 85. They also were involved in establishing banks and other businesses. Emily (Sissy) Dunlap Lawson was the city’s first female commissioner and mayor.

J.D. Jewell doesn’t go far back in history, but his name comes up when you speak of the city’s poultry industry. The chicken business really took off after World War II primarily because of his innovations and worldwide recognition of his products. Besides eventually providing jobs for thousands, he, too, was generous with his wealth supporting the community in many ways.

Confederate Gen. James G. Longstreet spent his last years in Gainesville and operated the Piedmont Hotel. His second wife, Helen, however, became well known. She was the city’s first female postmistress and had much to do with Gainesville getting a modern (at the time) post office. She went on to gain national fame with her fight to protect the environment and during World War II as a “Rosie the Riveter” in an aircraft plant.

Again, this is far from a complete list — just a sampling of those who contributed to Gainesville’s place in the world. In modern times, Nathan Deal was a two-term governor, congressman and state legislator. The Hardy, Bell, Jacobs, Hosch, Green, Rudolph, Redwine, Palmour, Morrow, Sidney Smith, Smithgall, Butler, Mathis, Norton, Johnson, Whelchel, Williams and numerous other families made the city what it is two centuries after its founding.

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

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