After the stock market crash in 1929, the economy really sank into the tank across the country. While it seemed Northeast Georgia was immune from the worst of the Great Depression in its early months, local businesses and industry would suffer eventually.
Jobs began to dwindle as fears increased with market doldrums. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal put hundreds of Northeast Georgians to work on public works projects, but there were many who still went hungry.
Mills laid off workers and closed down part of the time. Teachers had to take pay cuts. The county put prisoners to work on “chain gangs.”
Some labor unrest emerged, especially among the mills, and Chicopee Manufacturing Corp. had to close temporarily because of violence. Rallies were held among residents supporting those who continued on their jobs and to discourage those wanting to walk off.
A federal program propped up cotton prices to the relief of farmers, who were suffering because of lowered demand for their product. Cotton was a huge crop in Hall and surrounding counties in the 1930s.
The State Bank, which had been boasting of its sound financial shape earlier, after all, did fail, and three other Gainesville banks were hurting. Roosevelt imposed a “bank holiday,” during which banks would close to stem the outflow of deposits and calm customers’ panic. The Citizens Bank and First National Bank were allowed to reopen after the holiday, but Gainesville National Bank continued on a kind of probation under closer scrutiny by federal regulators.
In December 1930, the Welfare Workers announced plans to feed the poor and unemployed. They were to serve 6 gallons of buttermilk, 5 gallons of soup and 25 loaves of bread till the food ran out. People were going door to door asking for food or work.
Gainesville civic leaders and the business community did what they could to bolster people’s spirits and put a positive face on the local economy. They boasted of new developments and tried to show some optimism in the face of all the negativity. The Gainesville Kiwanis Club even staged a mock trial of Old Man Depression, convicting him and ordering him to be hanged.
Hall County Grand Jury recommended reducing county employees’ pay to ease local government budget strains. It also came out against a new courthouse, which was in the planning stages. Local school boards already had to cut their budgets.
Local newspapers shied away from negative news, instead campaigning against pessimism and griping among some citizens. They pooh-poohed so much talk about hard times.
Indeed there was considerable good news to provide happy headlines during the years of the Depression.
Gainesville’s City Park was the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and its workers added to and improved numerous parks and other projects in addition to providing jobs. It reforested many areas in Northeast Georgia, including some in the city.
Gallant-Belk opened its downtown store during this time, and the Ritz Theater also debuted, giving people an extra place to shop and be entertained if they had the money to do so.
One of the biggest announcements, though, was the coming of Owen-Osborne Hosiery Mill on Spring Street, what is now Jesse Jewell Parkway, at the site of the present Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic. It provided scores of new jobs for the community and even expanded its plant and added more jobs before the Depression ended.
Paving was completed from Gainesville to Cleveland, and a new golf course was started at the end of Woodsmill Road in the vicinity of the present Longwood Park. Only nine holes of a planned 18, however, were completed before Lake Lanier flooded it later in the 1950s.
Despite tight government budgets, Gainesville was able to build a swimming pool — Green Street Pool, which remained open till 2008.
About the time things were looking up for the nation and Northeast Georgia, the 1936 tornado destroyed Gainesville’s business and government center in addition to killing more than 200 people.
But the storm also resulted in an infusion of millions of dollars in government recovery assistance into the city that put Gainesville on a path toward greater economic development in the long run. After World War II in the 1940s, Northeast Georgia really pulled itself up by the bootstraps as the Depression became a bad memory.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.