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Forgotten governor buried here
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The Georgia historical marker outside Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville notes two of the state's governors are buried there.

A.D. Candler, who was born in North Georgia and lived in Gainesville, is the better known. James Milton Smith, who served as governor from 1872 to 1877, was a South Georgian whose eventual home was Columbus. While most of his biographies don't mention it, at least one source said he practiced law in Hall County at one time, though that couldn't be confirmed.

But the main reason he is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery is that is where his first wife, Hester Ann Brown Smith, is buried. She died July 31, 1880, at White Sulphur Springs after a long illness. Her gravestone and his granite monument are the only two in the brick-walled cemetery plot. They had no children.

Curiously, Gov. Smith's gravesite was without a monument until 35 years after his death.

The governor started his career as a blacksmith in Twiggs County, studied law and began practicing in Thomaston. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel during the Civil War until an injury forced him to leave the Confederate Army. He then served in the Confederate Congress until the war's end.

After the war, Smith moved his law practice to Columbus. He probably didn't know he was on the fast track to becoming governor when voters elected him to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1870. The very next year his colleagues elected him House speaker, thus leader of the Democratic Party under the Republican administration of Reconstruction Gov. Rufus Brown Bullock. When Bullock vacated the office to escape possible impeachment in 1872, Smith became governor by virtue of his office and was later elected to a full term.

At his inauguration, the new governor spoke of "the long and cheerless night of misrule." Historians credit him with bringing the state out of Reconstruction and out of debt, as well as other progressive initiatives. His critics said some of his policies limited opportunities and mobility for blacks.

After his gubernatorial term, he filled several other government appointments until his death in 1890.

In June 1925, Dr. Joseph Jacobs of Atlanta arranged a ceremony unveiling a monument at Gov. Smith's gravesite in Alta Vista Cemetery. Other than calling it an "oversight," no explanation was given why no marker had been erected when Smith died.

Prominent Georgians and Hall Countians lunched at the Princeton Hotel before the unveiling. Included were publisher Albert Hardy, lawyer H.H. Dean, Mayor W.G. Mealor and Brenau College president H.J. Pearce. Gov. Smith's step-son, Marshall Wellborn, also attended the ceremony.

Dr. Jacobs explained the reason for his involvement in seeing a monument to Gov. Smith's memory was erected. His father and Gov. Smith were close friends. The elder Jacobs asked for the governor's help in commuting the sentence of a man serving in the chain gang for stealing $10. The man had been working for $50 a month, but being paid only a dollar or two at a time. He had taken $10 he thought was owed him, but prosecutors believed otherwise and got him sent off to prison.

As a young boy, Dr. Jacobs would walk miles to carry food to the prisoner while his father negotiated to have the man released.

Gov. Smith investigated the case and released the prisoner on the condition he live with relatives in another state.

It was many years later that Dr. Jacobs learned no monument marked Gov. Smith's gravesite in Alta Vista, and he provided one at his own expense.

During the unveiling ceremonies, one speaker praised the governor's place in history: "As speaker of the House of Representatives during the ... this master spirit that we honor today was the giant in brain and purpose and faithfulness that beat down the radical foe, drove corruption from the halls of legislation and set the wheels of constructive progress for a war-ravaged state.

For this splendid service in rehabilitation, James Milton Smith is justly and incontestably known as ‘Georgia's Great Deliverer'."

Smith suffered a stroke and died in Columbus after a long illness Nov. 20, 1890.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays. Originally published Dec. 13, 2009.