In the months before the Great Depression, there were few hints of the coming economic disaster, at least in the Gainesville area.
The stock market crashed in October 1929, but things seemed lovely in Gainesville the spring and summer before.
Hall County indeed looked prosperous as it staged a Spring Festival in May that brought thousands to Gainesville for an elaborate parade that featured floats some described as fancy as those seen in larger cities. Some 60 floats started out on what was then West Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway, wound around the downtown square, out Green Street all the way to Riverside Military Academy.
The textile mills of the day, Chicopee, New Holland and Gainesville Mill, led the way with their winning floats. Chicopee, which had located in Hall County just two years earlier, featured Mrs. Harry Purvis, wife of the plant’s executive, dressed as an Indian maiden paddling a canoe in a background of greenery and a waterfall.
Little James “Bubba” Dunlap was the “groom” in a Tom Thumb wedding atop a float.
Prominent Atlanta journalists judged the floats, and among special guests was Dr. S.V. Sanford, dean of the University of Georgia, for whom Sanford Stadium is named.
Local newspapers said the festival brought the largest crowds ever to Gainesville. That made local merchants happy because they were promoting Trade Days at the same time, offering merchandise at supposedly reduced prices.
Brenau College celebrated its 50th anniversary simultaneously with a series of events, including an opera with noted performers of the time. The school also staged a pageant on Brenau Lake, which at the time was in the area of Sherwood Plaza and Sherwood Heights. School officials instructed those who wanted to attend to park their vehicles at the end of Park Street, where pavement ended at the time, and walk the 500 yards to the lake. A narrow trail led to the lake, and some cars could get through, but it wasn’t encouraged.
Several other activities celebrated the Spring Festival and Brenau’s semi-centennial.
While those were significant events, that same month Gainesville celebrated the official opening of its airport. An Air Derby was the big show, featuring 19 planes, including a four-passenger monoplane, a Stinson-Detroiter J5. People came from all over the state to watch the planes do acrobatic maneuvers, race one another and drop “bombs,” sacks of starch, to a target on the ground.
They also witnessed parachute drops from the airplanes.
The opening of the airport was an important milestone for Hall County. Gainesville officials had worked for months to get an up-to-date airfield as flying had become more popular, and they could see the economic advantages it would bring to the area.
Chicopee Manufacturing Corp., which had bought thousands of acres when it located in Hall County in 1927, owned the property on which local officials wanted to build the airport. It sat on a hill just south of what was then Gainesville Mill.
Gainesville and Hall County officials worked together to grade the property and prepare the site for construction. Gold and H.O. Tate were the first to receive a license to operate a commercial flying enterprise at the airport.
Gainesville gradually improved the facility, though the Depression stunted almost all growth and development. It wasn’t until World War II that dramatic improvements came to the airport as the U.S. Navy upgraded it for a training facility and radar site.
When the war ended, the city took the airport back and over the years has expanded it and extended its runways to accommodate jets and other large aircraft.
The Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport off Queen City Parkway and Aviation Boulevard, however, wasn’t Gainesville’s first landing field. That was a cow pasture near where Norfolk-Southern Railroad crosses Athens Street in south Gainesville. One of the first planes to land there was a Curtis Pusher, made of bamboo and flown by a stunt pilot. When it took off again, the plane flew only a short distance before crashing into a nearby garden, injuring two people.
The Northeast Georgia Fairgrounds off Shallowford Road was Gainesville’s second landing strip, and the third was the Hudson Brick property near where Purina Mills is today off Athens Street.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.