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Column: Gainesville Rotary Tree might bite the dust
Johnny Vardeman

Gainesville’s beloved holly tree in the triangle at one end of Green Street apparently will be lost to a roundabout planned by the state Department of Transportation.

The holly tree has become known as the Rotary Tree because Gainesville Rotary Club has nurtured and maintained it for years. It has cooperated with the City of Gainesville to have the tree at its best for the lighting of it for Christmas on Green Street every year. It also on occasion has been decorated for other causes during the year.

The triangle park with its boulder honoring the memory of Mrs. Mary John Dunlap Mitchell was dedicated in August 1934.

An article in the Gainesville News described the occasion: “A neat boulder with appropriate plaque was placed Friday in a triangle at the intersection of Green, Academy and Sycamore streets in memory of Mrs. John Dunlap Mitchell. (Sycamore Street was later widened and renamed E.E. Butler Parkway.) The triangle is being kept neatly by the Gainesville Garden Club, and at a recent meeting of the organization it was unanimously voted to name it the John Dunlap Mitchell Park in loving memory of Mrs. Mitchell, a member of the club and ardent flower lover.”

The plaque on the stone reads: “In Memoriam, Mary John Dunlap Mitchell, 1879-1934. This park is dedicated by the Gainesville Garden Club.”

The Garden Club had maintained the little park for years before the boulder monument was placed there.

There was no mention in the news article of the planting of a holly tree, which might have come later or perhaps had been planted earlier. The late Ed Dunlap Jr., Mrs. Mitchell’s nephew, had said he remembered as a small boy when the tree was planted. He said his father, Ed Dunlap Sr., secured the boulder from a quarry at New Holland.

Mrs. Mitchell died in March 1934, after an emergency appendectomy at Downey Hospital in Gainesville. She was a graduate of Brenau College and a charter member of Gainesville Garden Club.

Active in First Baptist Church, she was a member of Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union. The Mitchells lived on Green Street, their home near the present post office.

Mrs. Mitchell’s husband, Byron, was a prominent civic leader and city commissioner. He ran a popular meat market. Their son, Byron Jr., later operated a meat market and a restaurant named “The Red Steer” on Main Street just off the square.

To understand the prominence of Mrs. Mitchell, she had a “four-preacher funeral,” featuring the ministers of Gainesville’s four largest churches at the time: First Baptist, First Methodist, First Presbyterian and Central Baptist.

The Mitchells’ daughter, Mary, married Charles Strong Sr., who became a county commissioner. Mrs. Mitchell’s brother, Ed Dunlap Sr., was a noted lawyer active in state and even national politics.

Mrs. Mitchell was the great-grandmother of Charles Strong III, Nat Strong, Jane Weaver and Mary Gerakitis.

Mike McGraw, president of Gainesville Rotary Club, announced to members last week that the Rotary Tree would fall victim to the roundabout, which the DOT is installing as part of a widening and improvement project on Green Street.

The Rotary Club has been lighting the holly tree since 1982. McGraw said he had been participating in flipping the switch to light the tree since 2015. But the tree is not in the DOT’s plans for the street, he told members. He said there could be a new tree planted in the roundabout.

McGraw said Bryan Lackey, Gainesville city manager, had made a valiant effort to save the holly tree, but only was successful in the DOT allowing the possible planting of a new tree in the roundabout.

Marsha Hopkins, a Rotarian, but speaking only for her family, said, “I feel very strongly that this beautiful tree is a part of the very heart of Gainesville, and I hope there is some way to keep it.”

Public comment on the DOT project ended Sunday.

Another monument

At one time the Dunlap family was honored with monuments at both ends of Green Street. The other was in the triangle park at the intersection of Green Street and Thompson Bridge Road. It honored Ed Dunlap Sr., but was moved to American Legion Post 7 when that intersection also was widened by the DOT.

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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City of Gainesville employees place lights on the holly tree Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the intersection of Green and Academy Streets. The tree has been decorated for Christmas every year since 1982, when the tradition was started by the Rotary Club of Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers