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Column: Many tried to get out of World War I, but only a few actually did
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

In 1917, as America entered World War I, “selectmen” were being drafted into service.

There was opposition to the United States’ involvement in the war, especially among poor Whites, farmers and women.

Therefore, many young men applied for exemption from service, claiming they were essential to some profession or job at home. 

In Hall County, those who decided on such applications denied all but one of several. That one was approved for exemption because of physical disability. However, another was denied exemption for the same reason.

Denied claims for exemption included those in banking, industry, dependency, students, theology students and a Western Union lineman. Many farmers were denied exemption, but would still be eligible for service after they had gathered their crops.

Despite considerable opposition to the war, a large crowd on Gainesville’s square cheered 28 young men leaving for training at Camp Gordon. They were said to have received appropriate training for the war in Europe as they bogged down in mud on roads around the camp.

The community also raised money for the war effort. W.L. Jackson raised $60 for a tobacco fund for soldiers. 

Gainesville High School students somewhat prepared for service. Instead of football, the school offered optional physical and military training for boys during after-school hours. 

There was a teacher shortage in those days, too, but 48 girls studied home economics and 50 students participated in a tennis tournament.


Business as usual

Despite the war, the local government conducted business pretty much as usual. 

The Hall County tax digest in 1917 was $8,488,206. Property owners were taxed five mills, that is, $1 on $1,000 property value. 

Among the $67,905.64 county budget items was juror pay, 16% of 50 cents.

Hall County’s school district taxed each school district differently, apparently according to the number of students enrolled in each school. The millage rate varied from five mills in the Airline and Flowery Branch districts to 1.5 in Gillsville. J.D. Underwood was superintendent.

Gainesville’s budget was $119,470.66.

Postal rates would rise in 1917 to 3 cents for a first-class letter. Postcards could be mailed for 2 cents.

You could buy a full-page ad in the weekly newspaper for $12.


Apples aplenty

Farming and general interest in agriculture grew in spite of the war. The early 1900s was when Northeast Georgia became known for its apple production. 

Habersham, Rabun and White counties particularly were recognized for their orchards, most of which are gone today. John P. Fort of Mount Airy in Habersham County had won premium awards two years straight in competition in Spokane, Washington, the heart of America’s apple-growing region.

Twenty-five thousand apple trees were planted in Northeast Georgia in 1917, and Congress appropriated $5,000 for an apple experiment station in Cornelia. Habersham’s apple production became such that a monument, the Big Red Apple, was erected at the Southern Railway depot in Cornelia. Habersham Countians remain proud of the monument that still stands in downtown Cornelia.


No campaign

Many voters are tired of the 2022 election, and runoffs extend the campaign into December. Some of the campaign conversation will center on candidates’ character.

Character wasn’t an issue in a years-ago election campaign in Habersham County, or was it? The Center Hill district unanimously elected a constable who was in Fulton County Jail on an illegal whiskey charge.

Benjamin Harrison Boulevard Blair was nicknamed “House” because he was 6-foot-7 and said to have stood on the ground to help build a house while other workers had to use scaffolds.

He pleaded guilty to an illegal still charge and served two months. Supporters said his election was vindication and a rebuke to “those meddling revenue officers.” Blair lived near Mount Airy.


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.