A century and a half ago this month, the Civil War began officially with the shelling of Fort Sumter, but as embroiled as the nation was in the turmoil of the times, Hall Countians had diamonds on their minds and in their mines.
The Southern Confederacy, a weekly newspaper circulated statewide, was filled with news and comment about the war, slavery, secession and related topics. But it had space on its front page in April 1861 to reprint a Gainesville Eagle article about diamonds in Hall County.
A diamond find in Hall County is the stuff of legend passed down by generations. But all the stories aren’t fables.
In 1845, a 2.5-carat diamond was discovered in the Glades Farm area in east Hall County. That’s where a proposed controversial reservoir is to be built. At the time, prospectors were mining for gold around Flat Creek, the one in the Glades, not the one that runs through Gainesville.
That big rock sold for just $35; another find the next year brought $50.
The Glades mines had been worked by Dr. Richard Banks and Thomas Bell for many years. They were looking for and found some gold before the first diamond showed up. John G. Nelson is said to have found the first gem, which went to the mint at Dahlonega, then to the Philadelphia Mint. A Dr. Patterson, superintendent of the U.S. Mint, bought the diamond, which the newspaper described as “of the first water,” but gave no value.
Another diamond was found by Bell on the Stocking Eater Branch. He sent it to London twice and Paris once to determine its value, which was estimated at $550. The Eagle wrote of it: “This diamond has been seen by many of our citizens. It is worn by one of the fairest of the daughters of Gainesville, Miss Sue W. Banks, who has herself been appropriately called ‘the Diamond of Hall County.’”
Nelson also found another diamond at Glades, but its value and fate were undetermined.
Legend has it that a large diamond got away in a water raceway used to wash dirt for minerals in a stream. Yet another story is that a diamond lay at the base of a gum tree, and children used it to play marbles.
The stories of diamonds found at the Glades are oft told, but lesser known is digging for diamonds in south Hall County.
A.J. Odell worked a mine 7 miles southwest of Gainesville. John M. Luther, too, was looking for gold in 1840 when he stumbled upon a diamond. Andrew S. Wilson, who had owned the mine at one time, offered Luther 15 cents for it. Luther, apparently not realizing its potential value, readily let him have the rock. Wilson turned around and sold it to a Dr. Daniel for $30 to make a quick profit.
William Dowdey found a second diamond at the mine, but broke it to pieces to see what made it shine so. The Eagle estimated its worth at $500 to $600.
Matthew Stephenson of Dahlonega later took over the mine, looking primarily for diamonds. Stephenson was the federal assayer sent to Dahlonega after gold was discovered and the mint established, but he spent a lot of time in Hall County. Urging Lumpkin County gold miners to stay home rather than join the rush to California, he is said to have pointed to Crown Mountain in Dahlonega and exclaimed, “There’s millions in it!”
Somehow his phrase got corrupted into “Thar’s gold in them thar hills,” but he still gets the credit for it.
At least some of the Hall County diamond stories are true, and the Eagle speculated that more diamonds than it reported had been discovered but kept secret.
In modern times, however, there has been no news of diamond finds. Surely, prospectors and just curious folk have scoured Glade Farms and other former mining sites in hopes of striking it rich. Despite all the digging, creek dredging and other work, the land seems to have surrendered all the precious metals it had hidden these many centuries. If there remain deep in the ground in the Glades more sparkling gems or shiny nuggets, they apparently will remain there till the end of time — if the reservoir becomes a reality.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.