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‘Wanderer’ ran Hall stores, mined for gold, racked up endless stories
Johnny Vardeman

There were Sidney O. Smith Sr., founder of the Hall County insurance agency by that name, and his son Sidney O. Smith Jr., longtime superior court and federal judge.

Then there was “Uncle Sid” Smith, no apparent relation except they shared the same name.

Uncle Sid perhaps wasn’t as prominent in Hall County as the other two, but he was widely known in other sections of the country.

Oldtimers might remember Midget five and dime or variety stores in Gainesville, Rabbittown and Flowery Branch. The one in Gainesville once operated next to Piedmont Drug Store on Bradford Street on the square. The Rabbittown store was across from Eugene Gee’s service station on what we now call Old Cornelia Highway.

Uncle Sid was known as a wanderer. He traveled all over the country engaging in a variety of businesses and avocations. Born in Connecticut, he helped his father in his harness-making business for a while. He would spend his spare time learning to paint. He claimed never to have attended school more than six months, but became a voracious reader, among his favorites the Bible and Shakespeare.

His wanderlust lured him eventually to Buffalo, New York, where he would make a dollar a day making harnesses. After moving to Chicago briefly, Uncle Sid ended up in Minneapolis with only $4 to his name.

Somehow he managed to buy a printing press for $18, and acquired a camera. This allowed him to make and print postcards, which he sold for a living. He also wrote poetry on the side.

Uncle Sid was successful enough to buy the building his business was housed in. Unfortunately, a fire burned it to the ground, and he was on the move again.

This time it was to the oil fields in Oklahoma. He worked for a time there and also was popular enough to be named a deputy sheriff.

Then gold fever struck Uncle Sid, and he moved to New Mexico. He always said he liked to live outside, so prospecting suited his lifestyle.

Gold provided a living for him, but it was time to move on again, and he learned of some gold mining in Georgia. That was how he picked Gainesville as his next destination. His mining experience caused him to start digging for gold as the area was around the Gold Belt, where miners flocked to Lumpkin County in the 1800s. Gold had been mined in Hall County, too, so Uncle Sid dug around where Hall County’s annex building is today, and also had a mine in The Glades, where mining was extensive at one time near Lula. He also had a mica mine north of Gainesville.

That apparently earned enough to establish his Midget dime stores.

The Midget name apparently stemmed from his appearance. His step-son, Sunny Smith of Gainesville, described Uncle Sid as a short man always with a stub of a cigar in his mouth. His watch chain sported a gold nugget. He bought his cigars at a tobacco store in the old Dixie-Hunt Hotel.

Sunny Smith owns some paintings his step-father did, along with a gold coin. He learned woodworking from Uncle Sid, as he was called. 

The Knoxville, Tennessee, Journal in an interview with him in 1946 called Sid Smith the Gulliver of the Arts and the Business World because of his work as an artist and in other fields, in addition to his extensive travels. His various skills included harness-making, gold mining, art, oil drilling, interior decorating, photography, sales, printing and sign painting.

Sunny Smith said while in Gainesville, his step-father would travel to North Carolina and buy pottery that he would paint to sell in his stores, along with jewelry.

Uncle Sid Smith died in 1954. His wife Ruby operated the dime stores for a while after his death. He is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery.

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;

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