Ben Fouts believes he was the first person to water ski barefooted on Lake Lanier.
When the lake was first rising behind Buford Dam, Fouts' father was pulling him on skis behind a boat in the Sardis-Chestatee area. Ben dropped one ski, then another until he was skiing barefooted. This was in 1957 or 1958 when trees still poked their tops above the surface as the lake filled up. "You had to be careful to watch for stumps," Fouts said.
He also has another story to tell about the early days of Lake Lanier. He lost his 1960 University of Georgia class ring while skiing in the Sardis Park area a few months after he graduated. Ed Cox of Gainesville Marina scuba-searched the bottom of the lake in that area for hours with no success. But a few years ago when the water level dropped during a drought, Fouts got a call from somebody who had found the ring.
It's those types of stories that two professors at Gainesville State College are collecting for their classes' project to tell the story of Lake Lanier through personal experiences as well as maps, aerial photographs and Geographic Information System technology. Dee Gillespie and J.B. Sharma gave a glimpse of their progress at a forum at Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University a few nights ago.
As Mayor W.B. Hartsfield of Atlanta said before Buford Dam was built, the lake would transform the geography and economy of North Georgia and his city, Gillespie said. He even envisioned Lake Lanier as a step toward providing navigation from the Gulf of Mexico to Atlanta.
The college is involving students in research, oral histories, as well as putting together a website that people can view and click on icons that will help tell the story of the lake and, eventually, Northeast Georgia. Rare soil conservation aerial photographs on the site show how the landscape has changed since the dam backed up the Chattahoochee River in the 1950s.
The Buford Dam project cost $44 million, including $19 million in land acquisition and relocation costs. The Lake Lanier watershed is one of the most important in the nation, with 16 million people dependent on it one way or another. Those statistics and other data will be a part of the comprehensive history.
But equally important, Gillespie says, are the personal stories people affected by the lake have to tell. Seven hundred families, most of them farmers, were impacted when the river was dammed.
Buford Dam was built for "the greater good," Gillespie said, but those families made tough sacrifices. They were compensated for the land taken and relocated if they desired. But she told the story of a woman who lost a family home that had survived the Civil War, and she didn't want to move. And the farmer who had grown corn along a river bottom all his life and wasn't sure he could grow it anywhere else.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of the Buford Dam project, offered what they thought was a fair price at the time, $40 to $50 an acre. Lakefront prices now, even in a down economy, could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Beverly Fultz's grandfather, Cleveland Smith, had to go to court in a battle over his country store on Leather's Ford. The lake covered roads in the area, cutting off many of his customers. Smith finally closed the store after the corps settled with him.
It made it hard for Beverly to get to school, too. She attended the old Murrayville School, then Lanier Elementary and North Hall High School. Her father would have to drive her through water when the lake covered the roads. If it got too deep, she'd walk around the edges. Despite the difficulties, she maintained perfect attendance grades eight through 12.
Among video interviews is one with the Roberts sisters, daughters of "The Lady of the Lake," so called because she died in an accident in the lake, but her body and car weren't recovered until years later.
Sharma, Gillespie and their students are looking for more lake stories. They can be contacted at P.O. Box 1358, Gainesville 30503. Gillespie's e-mail address is email@example.com; Sharma's is firstname.lastname@example.org. A link to the project website can be found here.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at www.gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.