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Column: First pharmacist at Hall hospital sat on history
Johnny Vardeman

There are two important pieces of history in the photograph accompanying this column.

The guy sitting in the chair was the first pharmacist for the old Hall County Hospital, now Northeast Georgia Medical Center. He is the late James H. Gravitt, who also served as the purchasing agent for the new hospital. He was among the first employees hired.

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James Gravitt sitting in Dr. J.H. Downey’s chair at the former Hall County Hospital. Photo courtesy Johnny Vardeman

The chair he is sitting in belonged to Dr. J.H. Downey, founder of Downey Hospital, predecessor to Hall County Hospital/Northeast Georgia Medical Center. According to James Gravitt’s son, the Rev. David Gravitt, Dr. Downey gave the chair to James because he had helped the doctor procure a new chair.

James Gravitt qualified for the hospital pharmacist position after serving an apprenticeship with pharmacist H.H. “Steamboat” Ledford, who owned Ledford’s Pharmacy at 111 Washington St., just off Gainesville’s downtown square. That is the building now occupied by the Cleveland Building/Gainesville Milling Co.

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James Gravitt, left, on the job at Ledford’s Pharmacy. Photo courtesy David Gravitt

James Gravitt began working at Ledford’s Pharmacy as a soda jerk. He became interested in the medical field, getting to know various doctors and other personnel. Ledford helped train him as a pharmacist and certified him so he could take the hospital position, a practice that didn’t require him to attend pharmacy school.

Near his retirement from the hospital, James Gravitt was recognized as the second longest-serving employee. For most of his career, he worked seven days a week.

David Gravitt also worked at Hall County Hospital, helping his father in the storeroom and handling television rentals from the time he was 16. He now sits in Dr. Downey’s old chair, having retired as a Methodist minister serving churches around North Georgia, including McEver Road in Hall County.

Grandpa Gravitt

David Gravitt’s grandfather was Walter Gravitt, who operated a grist mill and cotton gin in the Glade Shoals area of northeast Hall County. After Walter Gravitt died, his widow’s home burned. Jim Hunt, philanthropist who owned Glade Shoals and operated what became the Dixie-Hunt Hotel in Gainesville, built her a house on Davis Street, David Gravitt said.

Dr. Downey

Dr. James H. Downey came to Hall County as a physician for the new Pacolet textile mill at New Holland. He was one of the principal doctors who labored long hours treating the injured after the 1903 tornado struck Gainesville Mill and the New Holland mill village.

He later went into private practice and established Downey Hospital, which stood for many years on Sycamore Street, now E.E. Butler Parkway in Gainesville.

Still for sale

Whiskey-making has a long history in the North Georgia mountains. “Revenooers” with the federal government were constantly keeping bootleggers on the run. County sheriffs celebrated the capture of an illegal liquor still, proudly posing, axe in hand, accompanied by deputies and pictured in the local newspaper.

Some still operators weren’t bashful about their avocation, even advertising their products in local newspapers of a bygone era. An ad in an 1881 Southron, a Hall County newspaper, read, “For sale: 65-gallon still in perfect order. J.O. Simmons.” Apparently, if he had used the still, its products were only for “private use” rather than distribution.

Another 1881 ad in the Southron: “The public is hereby notified not to credit my wife, Eliza A. Gober, on my account as she refused to live with me. John W. Gober.”

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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