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Column: More notes from 200 years of Gainesville history
Johnny Vardeman

Gainesville will be 200 years old Nov. 30. Here are some notes from the city’s history:

The popular Civic Center at the end of North Green Street was built primarily as an armory. Work on the building started in 1941 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration projects, but World War II delayed its completion. Gainesville Parks and Recreation Department took over the building the year after the war ended and after city, county and federal funds completed it.

Roosevelt is important to Gainesville’s history. He visited the town after the 1936 tornado, promising assistance to rebuild the city. He returned two years later, after a new city hall, courthouse and federal building were completed. When FDR died at Warm Springs in 1945, large crowds gathered along the railroad tracks as his funeral car passed through the city on the way to Washington, D.C.

The lectern Roosevelt used to address the crowds in Gainesville was specially made for him with two brass supports he could grip while standing behind it. Polio hampered the use of his legs. The lectern has been used by other dignitaries visiting Gainesville and remains in the care of the Gainesville school system.

Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport started in what wasn’t much more than a glorified pasture in 1928 as an emergency landing field. It opened officially in May 1929. The Great Depression stalled improvements to the unpaved landing strips, but World War II provided an upgrade to a naval air training facility by December 1942. Improvements continued during the war, and Gainesville took back the airport in 1947.

Gainesville has been home to several newspapers in its history, starting in 1860 with the Gainesville Eagle, a weekly that converted into the Gainesville Daily Times, now the twice-weekly Times, in 1947. Other newspapers in the city’s history include the Gainesville News, the Morning News, the Herald, the Southron, the Airline Eagle, the Argus, the Tribune and the Georgia Cracker.

Templeton Reid operated a mint in Gainesville during North Georgia’s Gold Rush era. It is believed the mint was on Washington Street near the Gym of ’36 office building. The mint apparently operated only a few months in 1830. The gold coins, $2.50, $5 and $10, that were minted are rare valuables today.

The Gainesville Fire Department grew out of a volunteer organization called the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Co. Even though most of the city business district burned in 1851, there remained no full-time city fire department. The city did begin to fund equipment for the hook and ladder volunteers in 1876, gradually equipping firefighters with improved equipment, though it would be between 1902 and 1903 before they were paid full time. R. Henry Smith became the first paid chief in 1903.

Gainesville’s first paid fire chief was the son of William Pugh Smith, the city’s first mayor. Paul Smith, who operated Paul Smith Cleaners on North Bradford Street for many years, was William Pugh Smith’s grandson. The cleaners only recently closed. Mayor Smith was married three times, his first two wives having died. He is said to have operated the first grocery store, first meat market and first dry goods store in Gainesville.

Chattahoochee Golf Club, operator of Gainesville’s first golf course at the end of Riverside Drive in the vicinity of today’s American Legion Post 7, was started about 1916. But World War I interfered, and it wasn’t until September 1920 that it was opened officially. The opening was a big deal with famed sportswriters O.B. Keeler and Ed Danforth of the Atlanta newspapers covering it — with good reason, as the famous amateur golfer Bobby Jones played with Milton Dargan Jr., Douglas Edgar and Tom Nichols. The course was but nine holes, and plans were to add another nine holes later.

Three thousand people attended the opening of the Gainesville Midland Depot at the end of West Spring Street in September 1914. The building cost $20,000. At the time, three trains traveled daily to Athens and back. Gainesville’s Art Council now occupies the renovated and expanded depot building.

The lot that was important in Gainesville’s education history surrounded by Main, Parker, Grove and Banks streets stands vacant today. It once was the site of Gainesville College, an early private school, then Main Street School, which once served as an elementary and high school. The latter building was demolished to make way for the Hall County Sheriff’s Department and jail, which later was leveled. The lot awaits pending development for still another purpose.

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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