The lights decorating the Gainesville Civic Center and its front campus provide a perfect bookend to the annual Christmas on Green Street with the holly tree lighted by the Rotary Club at the other end of the historic street.
The decorations at the equally historic Civic Center are courtesy of Gainesville’s Park and Recreation Agency, which this year marks its 90th year in formal existence. Its activities and programs, though much broader in scope and reach today, have for much of its history focused on the adjacent City Park.
The seed for a Gainesville recreation department actually was planted in the late 1800s, and City Park was ground zero from the beginning. In 1886, the city paid $1,000 to the estate of Martha B. Banks for the tract of land now known as City Park. In the deed conveying the 50 acres, the city declared its intent to use the land as a park.
According to the deed, the property was bounded by what was then called Cleveland Road, now Ronnie Green Parkway, and the Gen. James Longstreet farm. The Civil War general, whose statue now stands on his former home site at the intersection of Park Hill Drive and Longstreet Place, still lived there at the time, and the present adjacent neighborhood bears his name, Longstreet Hills.
While City Park was used by residents in the late 1800s and early 1900s for all sorts of recreational activities, picnics, etc., it would be 1924 before the city established a park and recreation department. It would be funded by a property tax from 0.75 to 1 mill, a mill being $1 levied on every $1,000 assessed value of property.
Early recreation programs usually were managed by high school coaches or physical education teachers, and it wasn’t until June 1955 when Gainesville authorized a full-time director. He was Clayton Deavers, former University of Georgia football lineman and Gainesville High School coach.
Since that time, park and rec has had only a handful of directors: Billy Joe (Dude) Thompson, former Georgia and Gainesville High football star (1960-62); Walt Snelling (1962-66); Bill White (1966-73); Jimmy Hope (1973-88); Melvin Cooper (1989-- ). Cooper, who has been with the department since 1972, is the longest serving director and has presided over an award-winning department that has experienced growth in every area.
When most all activities were in City Park, many memories were made for longtime residents. Horse shows drew crowds of spectators and participants from all over North Georgia and even other states. State championship baseball and football games were played on its fields. Political rallies, rodeos, poultry festivals, barbecues, band competitions and concerts and other events were common.
The park expanded to provide fields for youth sports, and they continue today, along with the added sports of soccer and even lacrosse on Bobby Gruhn Field, the main space in City Park.
Tennis courts also are a part of today’s park facilities.
When Lake Lanier was filling in the mid-1950s, the park and rec agency began to grow its inventory of parks, among them such lakeside sites as Holly Park off Thompson Bridge Road, Longwood Park on Pearl Nix Parkway and Lanier Point, which also is a baseball/softball complex off Dawsonville Highway. Smaller parks dot the city, and the Longwood Park connects with Wilshire Trails, Ivey Terrace, Rock Creek and through downtown to the mid-town trail, still under construction.
Green Street Pool, which opened in 1931 adjacent to City Park, is no longer, the same with Pine Street and Fair Street swimming pools. They were succeeded by Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center on Jesse Jewell Parkway.
The Civic Center, then called the Civic Building, was supposed to be built before World War II as an armory. The war intervened, and it wasn’t completed until 1947. It has undergone several transformations and improvements and today remains headquarters for park and rec’s 39 employees who manage 19 parks, 16 tennis courts, 13 playgrounds, 20 athletic fields, 13 picnic shelters, eight miles of walking trails, the aquatic center, and numerous other facilities.
It was 90 years ago this month when about 400 Gainesville voters approved by a two-thirds majority the concept of an organized recreation program.
They would be amazed today at the far-flung activities and facilities that sprang from the city spending $1,000 for 50 acres for a park 128 years ago.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770- 532-2326; email firstname.lastname@example.org.