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Column: The more things change, the more similarities they share
Johnny Vardeman

It is somewhat canny to look back four decades or so and realize that similar problems and issues existed then as they do today.

For example, as the nation and state transitioned into the 1980s from the 1970s, crime was a nasty conundrum, as were politicians with ethical challenges.

The Talmadge name — legendary in Georgia politics — became tarnished because of alcoholism and financial missteps. As U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge was escorting new Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn down the aisle of the Senate, he stumbled and had to be helped to his seat. He was eventually treated for alcoholism, but was “denounced” by his colleagues for that conduct, as well as some questionable financial dealings.

Likewise, Bert Lance, budget director under the Jimmy Carter presidential administration, was indicted for some banking irregularities. And Andrew Young, Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, resigned because of an unauthorized contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

One of the top news stories in Georgia in 1979 was Atlanta and Georgia’s rising crime rate, particularly the murder rate in the city. One of the nation’s biggest stories that year was inflation. Sound familiar? The Atlanta situation was so bad, state troopers were called in to patrol the streets for 60 days.

As the 1970s ended, Gov. George Busbee was trying to get gun control legislation through the General Assembly. Good luck with that today.

Georgia Power and the Public Service Commission at that time were butting heads as they sometimes are today.

County fire unprotection

Perhaps the biggest story coming out of the 1970s into the 1980s locally was the long-running saga of fire protection in Hall County outside Gainesville. Chicopee at one time had a volunteer fire department, but service in unincorporated Hall County was nonexistent for decades.

There had been some efforts at a private fire department that usually fizzled until the Suburban Fire Department was organized by Jim Squires. Its name later was changed to the Hall County Fire Department. Larry Williams also was instrumental in the private fire service.

The trouble with private fire departments, though, was they relied on subscribers. If you paid a fee, your property would be protected in case of a fire. Problem was people, residences especially, wouldn’t pay their fee. The private company couldn’t pay its bills, especially with the high cost of engines and other equipment.

Fire protection in Hall County was so contentious it got the entire five-member county commission recalled. Commissioners had voted to trash a public fire department in favor of a private one. Out-of-city residents had indicated in a referendum they wanted a county-supported fire service.

Five new commissioners were elected, and in 1971, a county fire department organized.

It is hard to imagine Hall County today without a fire department. Its population has more than tripled since the 1970s. Residences, businesses and industries were more scattered then, whereas there’s more density today all the way around, especially in the southern part of the county.

Hall County Fire Department today has 16 stations, 16 engines, three ladder trucks, 16 medical units and 370 employees. A far cry from when the fledgling private service started with a single truck and station before acquiring more locations and equipment that eventually were foreclosed on.

The 1960s and part of the 70s experienced serious labor pains before giving birth to a department that is mature and still growing.

Gainesville Fire Department

Gainesville was in no hurry to organize a tax-supported fire department either despite a fire in 1851 that practically destroyed the town.

The city depended on volunteers until 1876, when the Gainesville Hook and Ladder Co. got $414 from the council to buy equipment. More equipment was purchased, and the company reorganized two years later. It wouldn’t be until 1902 and 1903 that the newly named Gainesville Fire Department would become an all-paid organization with a full-time chief, R.H. Smith, son of the city’s first mayor, William Pugh Smith.

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.