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Cooper Pants Factory marker finally to honor victims of '36 tragedy
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A mother and her two daughters were among those killed in the Cooper Pants Factory fire that started during the 1936 Gainesville tornado.

Hattie Mae Mincey, a Dahlonega native, and her daughters Gertrude and Pansy perished when the building just off the downtown square burned during the storm. Strangely, family members found Gertrude’s body, but when they returned later to recover it, it was gone. They were never able to bury her, Wanda Brock, great-niece of Hattie Mincey, said she was told.

If that wasn’t tragic enough, Hattie’s husband, Russell R. DeLong, died in an accident 30 years later when a tractor-trailer hauling acid overturned on his car.

Except for the government buildings such as the old City Hall and county courthouse, the headstones in local cemeteries, there hasn’t been an official marker denoting the 1936 tornado that killed more than 200 people and destroyed most of downtown Gainesville.

Later this month, there will be. The long-sought Georgia Historical Marker will be unveiled at the corner of Maple and Broad streets, site of the Cooper Pants Factory, where scores of trapped workers died in a fire.

An estimated 100-125 workers already were on the job that early April 6 when the storm hit. Only a few survived, the others unable to escape when the building collapsed, and fires started. Many had been working on the second floor sewing room and were unable to get down a stairway.

The Gainesville Eagle at the time quoted an unnamed survivor: “The dew stood on the screens of windows and doors that morning; Mother told me not to report for work, but I went anyway. I arrived at the plant at 8 a.m., and black clouds completely hid the sun, and the morning resembled night.

“A fellow employee … faced a row of windows and first noticed a rolling cloud of dust and rain approaching. She yelled for someone to look, but timbers were flying through the air, and the building was collapsing around us. The coal heaters burst, and the hot coals sprayed over cloth, dry wood and other flammable materials, turning the huge pile of debris into an inferno.”

Another employee working on the top floor remembered, “The power went off very early, and the dark skies offered little light to the gloomy interior of the plant. Many of the workers gathered coats and made for the narrow stairway, which led to a doorway on the first floor. Many were screaming before the tornado struck, but the stairway served as a trap for many. I did not reach the doorway. Timbers fell on me, and a heavy safe lodged above me. This safe protected me from much of the fire which was raging through the rubble, but my clothes were scorched by the intense heat.”

Survivors of 78 victims of the Cooper plant fire received $40,000 from the State Workmen’s Compensation Board at the time. The board received evidence that the fire might have started before the storm as mostly women workers tried to escape, the building darkening when the electric power went off. A stairway collapsed, and a locked door prevented most of the employees from getting out, investigators said.

Gainesville fire trucks just a block away couldn’t respond because of damage to the station. Architect Garland Reynolds, instrumental in pursuing a historical marker for the old Cooper Pants Factory site, said the new fire station built after the tornado was designed to withstand such a future storm. It was located on the former South Green Street, now Henry Ward Way.

Likewise, a new jail, city hall and courthouse were constructed with heavy steel and concrete structural system standing alone with easier access in an emergency. The old city hall and courthouse, which has been added onto, still stand. The jail on South Bradford Street since has been torn down.

The Federal Building, built just a few years before the tornado, stood between Washington and Spring streets, an addition to the old Post Office that had been built in 1910. In rebuilding the local government buildings, they were lined up with the Federal Building and at that time called a “civic center.”

The Cooper Pants Factory marker will be installed at 2 p.m. Oct. 30.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.