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Hall County's first library took years of work, countless volunteers and a few failed votes
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Hall County Library in Gainesville is in kind of a state of undress these days, having shed its thousands of red bricks in the midst of renovation to add more space.

It must be a bit unsettling to the Gainesville architects who designed the building, Garland Reynolds and Jack Bailey. Especially because it was nationally recognized by the American Institute of Architects and the Library Journal. But they understand the library’s need for a larger headquarters. Said Reynolds: “I am actually very pleased that our 1969 award-winning library building can be expanded to meet 2020 needs.”

After all, the building has stood there half a century. The library was dedicated 50 years ago as of Feb. 8, 1970. It was a long time coming. It took three bond elections before Hall County voters finally decided a first-class library was a priority. They voted Dec. 13,1967, to provide $1 million for the building.

The late James Dorsey, former library director and historian, in one of his books traced Hall County’s library movement all the way back to 1877 when the Gainesville Library Association organized. While interest in a library waxed and waned over the years, there was little support for taxpayers to build one.

In 1899, the library association was reinvigorated when Gainesville offered a room in its new City Hall. In 1905, financier Andrew Carnegie offered to unleash his millions to local communities to build libraries. Gainesville could have had one for $25,000, but for some reason it didn’t materialize.

Hall Countians visited Newnan, where such a library had been provided, and in 1907, Gainesville was offered $10,000 for a facility if the city would provide the land and pledge $1,000 a year to maintain the building. It didn’t happen.

Still, the library association endured. Mrs. Guy Clopton led the organization and persuaded people to buy library cards for $1. In 1915, Farmers and Merchants Bank provided an upstairs room for a library in its building on South Main Street. 

That arrangement didn’t last long as apparently the bank folded, and the library association moved above the D.D. Jackson store on the square.

Mrs. G. D. Bickers, a school teacher and mother of Bessie Bickers, who founded Hall County Humane Society, became volunteer librarian, opening the library two days a week. She grew the inventory to 600 volumes, and two years later to 1,000 volumes.

That kind of catch-as-catch-can library stumbled along until 1922 when the American Legion and its Auxiliary provided a community building on East Spring Street to house several organizations, including its own. Besides the legion, auxiliary and the library, others in the building were the chamber of commerce, Daughters of the American Revolution and Daughters of the Confederacy. A tea room also operated in the community building.

Those attending the grand-opening donated money, but it was shared among all organizations. Hall County and Gainesville contributed $200 each, but there was no public money designated specifically for the library.

Lillie Farrar Downey years later organized a library open to all in Grace Episcopal Church. For all intents and purposes, it was Hall County’s library supported by the church and volunteers, but not by tax money.

When the 1936 tornado destroyed the church and its library, the rebuilding spirit of the community renewed the effort for public-supported library. A new county courthouse and city hall were built after the storm, and after much discussion and prodding local officials, space for a library was provided in the basement of the 1937 courthouse, now known as the Courthouse Annex.

Ethel Roark became Hall County’s first official librarian, but it wasn’t until Mary Pursell, a diminutive but determined professional librarian, came on board that Hall Countians became serious about a separate library building. She established branch libraries in several locations around the county, using everything from beauty shops to grocery stores.

The Clara Belle McCrary branch library was across from Fair Street School in southeast Gainesville.

The first library bond election in 1956 failed because of a tie vote. Another attempt fell short two years later until finally in 1967, a bond issue that included funds for a library passed.

Jack Prince, who was in the midst of the library movement with the Gainesville Jaycees and Hall County Library Board, said he had never understood the history of opposition to a library. He grew up with a love for books and libraries

Today’s Hall County has overcome that resistance with an expanded headquarters under construction and modern branches in Murrayville, at North Hall Technical Center, Blackshear Place and on Spout Springs Road in South Hall.

Meanwhile, library director Lisa MacKinney hopes the renovation will be complete by the end of summer. Besides an enlarged library, much more parking will be available eventually as the city plans a parking deck in the old Turner-Wood-Smith building across the street where the temporary library operates today.

Oh, and as for those bricks stripped from the Gainesville headquarters, MacKinney says enough were salvaged to use in planters and retaining walls at the renovated site, as well as some for keepsakes.

You can view the “new” library on the Hall County library website, www.hallcountylibrary.org.

Watch for more local history in this column on Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE. 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com

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