The country was but 100 years old in 1876, celebrating its centennial with a big blowout in Philadelphia that actually became the first World’s Fair.
Northeast Georgia celebrated the milestone with numerous events and reminders in local newspapers. But it was a critical and historic time for other reasons, too.
It was an election year, coming just 11 years after the Civil War, and Southerners still stewing over what they called the radical Reconstruction rule that followed the fighting. Some federal troops remained in the South, a painful rubbing of salt in the wounds from the war.
Southerners for the most part wanted Democratic Gov. Sam Tilden of New York for president over Republican Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden actually won the popular vote and led in electoral votes, except for 20 disputed electoral votes. The Democrats, however, eventually conceded the election to Hayes because he promised to remove federal troops from the South.
Tilden won in Hall County, where 1,100 voted, and “no radical votes” except in Flowery Branch, Vandivers, Narramore, Quillians, Big Hickory, Bark Camp and Fork voting precincts.
Georgia’s governor at the time was James Smith, a Confederate veteran and Columbus lawyer, who is buried beside his first wife, Hester Brown, in Gainesville’s Alta Vista Cemetery. Smith and his family visited Gainesville often during his term as governor.
The 1870s were significant for the South and counties in Northeast Georgia particularly. The railroad finally came through, making the area more accessible as a destination for tourists curious about this relatively untraveled territory. Resorts such as White Sulphur Springs, Gower Springs and Porter Springs flourished, as did Gainesville hotels such as J.J. Gaines’ Gainesville Hotel on the southwest corner of the square.
John G. Longstreet, an architect and Gen. James Longstreet’s oldest son, operated the Piedmont Hotel. You could stay there for $2.50 a day, $13 a week or $40 a month. The Eagle wrote that the Piedmont “... is in flourishing condition. It is one of the best constructed buildings in Northeast Georgia. Being built mainly for the convenience of pleasure seekers and invalids, the architect succeeding admirably in the undertaking.” Part of that hotel has been restored by the Longstreet Society at its location on Maple Street.
This was a time, too, for a surge in education. While some schools had operated shortly after Gainesville’s founding in 1821, most education was by private tutors. An organized state system of education didn’t evolve until 1869. Private schools, such as Ruckleberry College off Shallowford Road, were scattered around Hall County.
The Gainesville Male and Female College had begun on Main Street in 1874, later morphing into the city’s Gainesville College at the site of the old Main Street School, now Hall County Sheriff’s Department and detention center. W.C. Wilkes ran the college, which actually taught children from primary to college age. Tuition was $5.50 to $16 a month, depending on grade and courses.
Gainesville voters finally voted for a tax for public education in 1877 to support Gainesville College and city education in general. Still, students had to pay 50 cents a month for primary grades, $1 a month intermediate and $2 for high grades. However, those who couldn’t pay were admitted free.
There was competition for students. Schools began to spring up all over the place. Mount Airy Institute for Ladies advertised for students taught by Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Dean. Rabun Gap High School held two 20-week sessions, charging $6 for spelling reading, writing and math, and $10 for grammar, composition, logic and math.
Nacoochee High School under the Rev. J.J. Methvin charged from $1.50 to $4 per month and offered “strict discipline, no inducement to dissipation.”
Education had become a priority, and local systems such as Hall County’s and Gainesville, grew from this era into what they are today.
When streets weren’t paved or hard-surfaced as they are today, potholes were more prevalent. Wrote the Gainesville Eagle in 1876: “We are glad to see the street force on Green Street as there are some places needing attention, and as it is the grand thoroughfare to Gower Springs we imagine invalids will be pleased to know there are a less number of jolts between them and the springs than formerly.”
Gower Springs was a resort in what we now know as Green Street Circle.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.