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Column: Hall County courthouse clock still ticking, though not always on time
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Many Hall County residents traditionally have scrutinized their election officials’ spending. They aren’t fans of tax increases.

They had approved a new courthouse in 1883, after a previous one burned, and were proud of the building that sat a block from the downtown square on Broad Street. A steeple or cupola crowned the courthouse with space left for a clock, but there was none.

When a group of Hall Countians proposed installing a clock, there was opposition from those afraid it would raise their taxes. Berry Bagwell was on the grand jury when the matter came up. Another juror, an opponent of the clock, said he didn’t want his tax money going for such an extravagance.

Bagwell responded that any tax increase would be insignificant. He even dove into tax records and told the opponent that his taxes might increase as much as two cents. The grand jury then recommended the county install the clock.

That courthouse with its Seth Thomas clock atop it lasted until 1936, when a tornado that struck the heart of Gainesville destroyed it. Ironically, just three weeks before the storm, the people had narrowly voted to build a new courthouse.

The federal government came in after the tornado and agreed to build a new courthouse and Gainesville City Hall, lining them up with the Federal Building, which still stood after the tornado.

This time, when the new courthouse was built after the tornado, a clock was installed at its top. While unreliable at times, the clock has stood watching over various courthouse changes.

An addition to the 1936 courthouse was built in the late 1970s, and the 2002 courthouse beside it is already filling space that was set aside for expansion. The old courthouse is now called the Courthouse Annex and houses various court-related functions.

Clock is ticking

The 1936 courthouse clock is a landmark for Gainesville. It has its own picture on a wall of Hall County scenes in the Kroger on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

But it hasn’t always been on time. Sometimes for stretches of several years, it didn’t operate.

Thomas Hertel hopes he’ll keep it on time now. About every six months, the clock repairman climbs the maze of steps to reach the innards of the clock. After the clock had stopped again, he had it running about a year ago. It had serious wear when he first looked at it.

Hertel lubricates the parts and adjusts the cycle as needed, changing the time when daylight saving time comes and goes.

An aerospace engineer for 35 years, he started his clock repair business in his home off Mundy Mill Road after retiring. He’s working on an 1800s clock at the moment.

The late W.A. “Humpy” Campbell and Carl Flowers were among those looking after the courthouse clock in the past.


Berry Bagwell

Berry Bagwell, who persuaded the grand jury to recommend installing a clock in the 1883 courthouse, was a prominent pioneer farmer and wagon builder, having been born in South Carolina in 1817. He gained prominence fighting in the Indian War in Florida in the mid-1830s and moved to Hall County afterward.

He married Emeline Strickland in 1842, and they had 11 children. Bagwell lived six decades in the house he built in what was known as Absalom, a community west of Gainesville near the intersection of Browns Bridge and Keith Bridge roads. It was named for Absalom Wingo, the first postmaster of the community.

Bagwell was a deacon at Flat Creek Baptist Church, and he and his wife are buried in the church cemetery. He died in February 1901.

The Berry Bagwell of Hall County isn’t to be confused with a Berry Bagwell of Floyd County. That Bagwell was caught with an illegal whiskey still in 1874. Nothing unusual about that in those days, except this Bagwell had been a spy for Union Gen. Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War and apparently wasn’t all that popular with people in that section.

A still also was found on the Hall County Berry Bagwell’s farm in 1895, but Berry said he knew nothing about it. Two people were arrested and convicted in the case.


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 johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.