School consolidation hasn’t been an issue in Hall County for some time after the major mergers in the 1950s that created North Hall, East Hall and South Hall high schools from smaller high schools such as River Bend, Oakwood, Flowery Branch, Sardis, Lula or Clermont.
Expansion over the years since has birthed West Hall, Chestatee and a new Flowery Branch. South Hall, meanwhile, was renamed Johnson High School in honor of Robert Wood Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson/Chicopee Manufacturing Corp. benefactor who donated thousands of acres for education purposes.
The Gainesville school system likewise has expanded, but the one high school has remained. E.E. Butler High School closed during desegregation, merging with Gainesville High. Former elementary schools at Miller Park, Main Street and Candler Street are gone, but have been replaced by Enota, New Holland, Gainesville and Fair Street. Gainesville Middle School succeeded the old junior high.
In 1924, in Hall County, including Gainesville, there were 60 schools with 157 teachers who received a grand total of $91,450 in pay among them all. Gainesville’s Main Street at the time had 550 students. The smallest school at the time was Merck in Hall County with just 14. A survey by the state said only four schools had “No. 1 equipment:” Gainesville High, Candler Street, New Holland and Gainesville Mill.
J.O. Martin, state supervisor, said in his report, “Gainesville, being the location of Brenau College and Riverside Military Academy, has given Hall County an educational atmosphere that has influenced the entire section. The New Holland Mill School is among the best equipped, taught and supervised school to be found in the state.”
Fifteen schools had been combined at Brookton, Candler, Chestnut Mountain, Jefferson, Lula, Murrayville, Oakwood and Sardis. New buildings were built at Brookton, Candler, Jefferson and Sardis. (Jefferson is in Jackson County, though it was included in the Hall County schools survey.)
Martin recommended further mergers: Macedonia with Chestnut Mountain; Center, Spencer Hill and part of Bristol Academy with Jefferson Academy; Piney Grove and Chattahoochee with Flowery Branch; part of Bristol, part of Mountain View, Flat Creek and Poplar Springs with Oakwood.
Overall attendance in Gainesville and Hall County schools was down, Martin attributing the decline to an unnamed contagious disease he believed that was spread from a circus that stopped in Gainesville.
Claire Merritt, who went to school in Gainesville, was a successful model and Broadway actress. Her family also had lived in Jefferson, White County, Athens and Clayton. Her father, J.M. Merritt, was a prominent Gainesville lawyer.
Claire married her first husband, Frank Hodgson, in Athens at age 14. They split shortly after their daughter, Julia, was born in 1916; Claire borrowed $100 and took her mother and daughter to New York, where Claire pursued her modeling and theater careers. The Gainesville Eagle had described her as “pretty and delightful, and her charms carried her through a successful theatrical career ...”
Claire eventually met New York Yankees superstar Babe Ruth, who at the time was married. Ruth and his wife separated, and he and Claire became a couple, but didn’t marry until his first wife died in a January 1929 fire. They married April 17 that year.
It is said Claire tamed Ruth to some degree. He had a reputation as a wild party animal with a drinking problem. After their marriage, Claire calmed him down and became his personal manager, watching his money, scheduling his appearances, etc.
Claire figured somewhat in a seven-year dispute between Ruth and fellow Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig. Supposedly, Gehrig’s mother made some disparaging remarks about how Claire dressed the Ruths’ adopted daughter Dorothy. It caused a rift between Ruth and Gehrig that lasted until the day Gehrig emotionally announced to Yankee fans that disease would require him to retire from baseball.
Ruth died in 1948. Claire Merritt Ruth died in 1976. Her daughter from her first marriage, Julia Ruth Stevens, is 97 years old and lives in Arizona and New Hampshire. She threw out the first pitch of the final game in the old Yankee Stadium in 2008. Babe Ruth had hit the first home run in that stadium when it opened in 1923.
Julia became a fan of Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Hank Aaron even as he was in pursuit of Ruth’s home run record and watched him play several times.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.