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Column: Gainesville’s 200th birthday stirs these stories from the past
Johnny Vardeman

This being Gainesville’s bicentennial year, it’s timely to look back and see how people lived way back when.

Gainesville was incorporated in November 1821 when the area was pretty much wilderness. It was kind of a big deal when a pioneer settler, Nevel Bennett, told about killing a deer where the city’s square is today. Native Americans were still plentiful in the era Bennett was talking about, which was before Gainesville was even laid out.

It wouldn’t be too unusual today if somebody killed a deer on the square, they are so plentiful in populated areas as development continues to invade their natural habitat.

Bennett was a large landowner in north Hall County, property that probably was in or near what is known today as Quillians Corner.

The Rev. W.W. Watkins spent his childhood in Gainesville and reminisced about how life in Gainesville was in the 1890s. Much of what people lived with and used was homemade, bedding for example.

There was no central heat, primarily open fireplaces in several rooms of a house. Kitchens were equipped with wood-burning stoves, and more fortunate families had such conveniences in other rooms. People ground their own coffee, as some still do today.

“There were no screened doors or windows, no daily papers, radios, telephones, electric lights, autos, movies, no professional baseball and no Sunday papers,” Watkins recalled. “Most clothing would be homemade. A good machine was a necessity to a family.

“Out in town there were no paved streets, and only brick sidewalks around and adjacent to the square. In 1890 there was no water or sewage system.”

Watkins remembered when what he called an “omnibus” pulled by horses eventually being replaced by the electric street cars. Two businessmen prominent in Gainesville history, Bob Hope and Jim Hunt, operated livery stables. Hunt also operated a hotel on the square that became the Dixie-Hunt.

“Mr. Bud Smith operated the first soda fountain ... the fount had one little spigot on the wall. The ‘soda jerk’ had to turn his back to the customer till he got the soda ‘jerked.’ No bottled drinks.”

The minister wrote that as boys he and his friends would explore caves behind “the Seminary,” which was Georgia Baptist Female Seminary, predecessor to Brenau University. He probably was referring to abandoned gold mines that once operated in that area around today’s present Sherwood Plaza. A street named “Gold” once ran to that area from Spring Street.

“There were no cotton mills,” Watkins wrote. “New Holland was a resort with hotel, cottages, bowling alley and spring.” Pacolet Mills at New Holland, now Milliken, and Gainesville Mill would arrive in the early 1900s.

“Tan-bark, crossties, chickens, eggs, nuts, dried fruits and brown jug contents were brought in from over the mountains,” Watkins said. “Jeans, clothes, homemade shoes, home-knit socks and old-fashioned galluses were common. Barter was a big part of trade.

“There were four churches, the Baptist on Main Street, the Methodist on Bradford Street, the Presbyterian (on what is now West Academy Street) and the Episcopal on College Avenue (a block across from the old Gainesville College that became Main Street School and more recently the former site of Hall County sheriff’s office and jail).”

The Rev. Watkins said as a boy of 8 years old his Methodist Sunday school teacher had him sign a temperance pledge, which he still had when he was writing his memories of old Gainesville. 

Many of the Watkins family are buried in Alta Vista Cemetery.

That creek

Speaking of sewage, Gainesville’s Flat Creek, which runs through much of the southside of town, has been a constant problem for the city. Everybody used to dump their debris in it. Dead chickens, feathers and guts from poultry plants once populated the stream, and other waste constantly found its way into the waters

Gainesville’s sewage system didn’t get started until the early 1900s, and Flat Creek was a primary dumping ground. John A. Gaines and 11 other property owners along Flat Creek sued the city in 1915 because they said allowing sewage into the stream damaged their property. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the ruling against the city.

The city had to divert its sewage around Flat Creek, but even today, the creek is sometimes choked with trash people throw into it.

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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