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1920 contents of high school cornerstone unveil history
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In the fall of 1920, Hall County students were studying in 21 schools.

They included Airline, Bethel, Brookton, Bristol (Pirkles), Center, Chestnut Mountain, Chattahoochee High School, Flat Creek, Friendship, Faulkner, Flowery Branch, Gillsville, Home, Latty, Laurel Hill, Lee Institute, Macedonia, Oconee, Oakwood, Piney Grove and Sugar Hill.

Schools long since have been consolidated, but some of those 1920 school names continue today.

Also that year, Merck-Elliott car company was selling Buicks, C.V. Nalley was the Dodge dealer, and A.J. Little was selling Dort cars for as low as $1,085. Obviously Buicks and Dodges outlasted the Dort, whatever that was.

Those bits of Hall County history trivia came out of a time capsule Gainesville native Billy Peck salvaged from the old Gainesville High School on Washington Street when he had it torn down in the mid-1970s.

Yellowed and rotting newspapers included the Gainesville News and Herald, which were published at the time. But they weren’t the only items Gainesvillians had placed in the capsule in October 1920 as the cornerstone was laid by local Masons and the grand master of Georgia, Charles L. Bass.

Students, school officials and citizens provided a crowd to watch the ceremony. If most of the cornerstone contents hadn’t deteriorated, Peck might have found a photo of Howard Thompson, founder of the city school system; a roll of high school students and list of graduates; a program for the first graduation exercises, a list of faculty and official documents of the new building presented by Mayor Hammond Johnson. Others on the program that day included Eugenia Flynt Mershon, Ralph Quillian, Nell B. Murphy, W.H. Hosch, T.H. Robertson and W.G. Mealor.

The 1920 newspapers showed Hall County’s tax digest at the time at $12,334,407. The Alamo Theater was showing a film of the Georgia Tech-Pittsburgh football game, including a famous drop kick by Red Barron, who later became a noted coach and operator of a football camp in Stephens County.

The papers reported E.L. Sisson’s garage on North Bradford Street burned, destroying 37 cars and trucks at a loss of $75,000. R.A. Metcalf of Aerial on the White-Habersham line reported a good apple crop with apples approaching the size of pumpkins.

Democrat Tom Bell was seeking re-election to Congress from the 9th District. His Republican opponent was Dr. O.L. Barnwell. Democrats accused Barnwell of listing Democratic candidates for local offices on the Republican ballot to attract Democratic voters to his ticket. Barnwell was against the League of Nations, but would welcome federal money for roads and farms. Bell won re-election.

Luther Roberts was running for judge of city court. He was honest. He wasn’t bashful about advertising, “I need the job.”

Billy Peck and his father bought the old Gainesville High School building in 1964. A new high school was built in its present location off Pearl Nix Parkway and Elephant Trail in 1957. The old building served as a junior high school for a while. Peck was a member of that 1957 GHS class.

The old high school gymnasium building, which still stands and is occupied by offices, served as a concert venue in the late 1970s, and its ground floor housed a restaurant operated by W.H. Maxey. That building was under construction when the 1936 tornado hit Gainesville. Its steel beams were so twisted, they had to be replaced.

What happened to all those bricks when the old Gainesville High was torn down? Thousands of students who walked those hallowed halls would have liked to have one for a souvenir.

Alas, Peck says, the mortar between the bricks was stronger than the bricks, which all broke apart under the force of the wrecking ball. The rubble was dumped into a ravine farther down Washington Street.

Peck salvaged one prized memento, however: the lion that guarded the front door of the school. That lion poised over the door suffered many a painting by pranking students over the years. Peck gave the cornerstone to the city.

Peck also has one of the school’s original heavy tables that students supposedly studied over during study hall in the library and a collection of several years of “Radiators,” the Gainesville High school yearbook.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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