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Gainesville’s tornado season stirs memories of past disasters
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Seems like every few days lately we’ve had tornado watches, even a few warnings and an actual twister or two in North Georgia.

That’s just April, normally the most intense severe weather month of the year. It was April, of course, when one of the worst tornadoes on record struck the heart of Gainesville, killing more than 200 people and wiping out its downtown business district.

But there have been others in what some have called “tornado alley.” No. 2 on the worst storms list for North Georgia was the one in 1903, which traveled from Gainesville Mill to New Holland and beyond, killing more than 100, a number of them children who worked in Gainesville Mill.

Then there was the one in 1998 that killed 13 as it carved a destructive path through north Hall County. It probably wasn’t the first, but was reported as the first tornado in Gainesville’s history was March 25, 1885. No deaths or injuries were reported, though there might have been some, but considerable property damage in the North Green Street area, including W.C. Wilkes’s school.

Other storms have struck in south and north Hall County, the River Bend area of Gainesville, as well as one that skirted Riverside Military Academy to Sunset Heights and beyond.

Here are some stories about the June 1, 1903, tornado that struck Gainesville’s two mill villages:

The year before the tornado, Gainesville had hired its first paid firefighters, C.C. Dunbar and W.S. Dunbar. Prior to that, only volunteers served, but volunteers continued to back up the paid fire department employees for many years.

P.N. Parker was mayor in 1903, and got help from Gov. Joseph M. Terrell, who activated the Candler Horse Guards, a unit of what would become the National Guard.

Judge J.J. Kimsey and Solicitor W.A. Charters a day after the storm went to the courthouse to continue an adjourned session of court. A Guardsman confronted them with a bayonet and prohibited them from entering. The courtroom was being used as a temporary hospital. Eventually, the judge was allowed to enter so he could officially adjourn court.

Sisters Adola Crow and Mrs. C.P. Harris, young nurses, walked two miles through the woods to reach New Holland Mill, where they helped the injured and bathed and shrouded the bodies of the dead. They are said to have worked 48 straight hours, doing a job that nauseated men couldn’t continue. As they left the mill, a seriously injured girl, age 10, is said to have told them, “Goodbye, I am coming to your house Sunday if I get well by then.” She died the next day.

Ironically, the building housing Gainesville Mill was damaged the most, while most of the village houses suffered little damage. At the other end of the storm, the New Holland Mill building escaped major damage, but many of the village homes were flattened.

Gainesville Mill closed, and workers there were transported by the street railroad to work at New Holland. Cotton mill president Victor Montgomery promised employment for workers from both mills.

Hall County residents, some of them sometimes disparaging of their big-city neighbor Atlanta, couldn’t have been more generous in their praise of the capital city. The newspapers, various businesses, doctors and nurses rushed to assist within hours of the June 1, 1903, tornado. They raised money for relief, brought provisions and supplemented law enforcement.

One of the Atlanta relief committee’s members, Harry Schlesinger, is said to have asked a doctor what he needed most. “Whisky,” was the reply. Schlesinger accommodated him with several cases.

A commissary was set up on Gainesville’s Main Street to supply food for those who’d lost their homes or otherwise without the means to get groceries. Hall County’s women volunteered to operate the food bank. Demand for food was so great they had to ration it by the day.

They began to bury their dead two days after the 1903 tornado. Services were held at both mills. One service included 30 funerals, some conducted within a minute of each other. It was a somber time, as rain fell on funeral processions along muddy roads to cemeteries. It would be a few more sad days before all the funerals were conducted.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; vardeman1956@att.net.

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