In his book, “Mule and Wagon to Automobile,” Prof. Thomas H. Rasmussen of Gainesville explores how a Gainesville of 472 people in 1870 grew into a sprawling metropolitan area of 180,000 today.
A constant theme is how most Hall Countians a century or more ago were subsistence farmers; that is, they produced most of what they needed on their farms. Travel to villages such as Gainesville, where they could barter for provisions they couldn’t produce themselves was difficult because of poor roads, and many didn’t have wagons or buggies.
As time passed, however, and transportation improved, the pioneer families learned they could produce more than they needed on their farms and sell the surplus in town or at country crossroads stores.
For example, Rasmussen illustrates in a table that in 1870 a mule and wagon could travel only 2 miles in an hour. By 1910, the spread of railroads increased the mileage travel in an hour to 15, and 100 years later, an automobile could average 40 miles or more in an hour.
The railroad, which came to Gainesville in the early 1870s, accelerated the move from subsistence farming. Those farmers living close to the railroad could get their products to a village like Gainesville more easily and faster, sell them at a profit and use the money to buy hardware, clothing or other goods they might have had to make themselves.
Trains also played a part in the growth of tourism. Health resorts thrived in and around Gainesville with city folk in Atlanta or along Georgia’s coast traveling more easily to northern points in the foothills or mountains.
Rail also increased industrial development as textile mills relocated to southern towns en masse. Hall County benefitted from that transformation with the location of mills in Gainesville and New Holland in the early 1900s and at Chicopee in the mid-1920s.
In 1870, about 100 dwellings housed Gainesville residents, who lived within about 12 blocks of the city square, primarily between Maple and Bradford streets and Washington and Broad. The population centered in Gainesville because of trails along the nearby ridge and eventually an east-west road. This was where travelers stopped to rest themselves and their horses or mules, where Indians and whites met to trade and people came to pick up their mail.
After the railroad came, Gainesville’s population quadrupled in a decade to 1,950 by 1880. It tripled to 5,900 by 1910. Before the railroad, there was little development on the city’s southside. Business people in the town’s center hoped the railroad would come nearer their stores and shops, but it ran south of town, causing a move toward the south for both businesses and residences. A streetcar ran from the depot to town and beyond.
Rasmussen’s book shows that as more people owned automobiles in the 1920s, many moved north of the city square because it was easier to get to and from work and shopping.
The railroad provided more access to and from Gainesville. It also created more jobs, witness the textile and other manufacturers that soon followed. And those developments created a demand for workers, many of whom left the farms and moved into or closer to town. This was especially true for sharecroppers rather than landowners.
But farming wasn’t over. In fact, cotton production multiplied because the mills created more demand. Cotton farming, however, began to decline in the 1920s, and fewer large fields of snow-white cotton in the fall were evident into the 1940s and early ’50s. At that point, Hall County, though long known as a poultry center, began to explode as the world’s broiler capital. Those cotton fields became dotted instead with poultry houses, which today continue to keep many farmers farming.
The three decades starting in 1970 saw another tripling of Hall County’s population to near 180,000. Lake Lanier, completed in 1957, steadily drew visitors who later established homes around or near the lake. Residential patterns continued to move outward from the city as former farmland became subdivisions that filled with newcomers and retirees.
As those new residential areas developed, shopping centers followed, creating more jobs and more people establishing more residences.
Rasmussen’s book, available at Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville, is illustrated liberally with old photos from Richard Stone’s collection from pioneer photographer Cicero Simmons.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.