While in recent years, Hall County Library has expanded its reach with branches in most sections of the county, the road has been bumpy for the public library movement.
The first library is credited to a group of Grace Episcopal women headed by Lillie Downey, who established it in the basement of the church in 1930. However, the library movement in Hall County had its beginnings in the 1800s. A local newspaper article in 1897 spoke of residents being allowed to use the library at Georgia Female Seminary for a fee. Mrs. Henry Wilkes Jones Ham was said to be instrumental in organizing a library.
Later, in 1899, a local paper reported, “A movement is on foot to establish a public free library in Gainesville. A number of people have been agitating the question for some time, and it is about to culminate in the establishment of such an institution.” They were hoping for a room in the new City Hall.
The article mentioned the existence at one time of a library association that had a considerable supply of books.
In 1904, the Gainesville News reported that the local postmaster, H.P. Farrow, was courting “a wealthy northern gentleman about a free public library for our city. With our present population of nearly 10,000 people, our three large cotton factories and their thousands of employees, our electric street car line of about seven miles of track in operation, our Brenau College with its 300 young ladies, and the rapid growth of our city in every point of view, there could be no young city in our broad land offering a prettier field for such a gift from a Christian philanthropist.”
There was a reference to a library hall above the Farmers and Merchants Bank and at another time a library over the Hulsey Building, but nothing substantial came about until the Episcopalians stocked the shelves with books in their church on West Washington Street. That lasted six years until the tornado of 1936 destroyed downtown Gainesville, along with the church, the courthouse and numerous other buildings.
When the new courthouse was built, space in its basement was provided for a library, which opened May 31, 1938. It became so popular that it quickly outgrew its cramped quarters. After World War II, several efforts to expand the library, preferably in its own building, failed. However, small library “stations” were established in 1945 at Lula, Clermont and Murrayville. Flowery Branch had a community library for a time.
A library branch also operated in the Northwestern School in the black community, later operating out of Fair Street School and still later as the Clara Belle McCrary branch across from the school, named for the school’s third grade teacher who looked after the library.
One of the most serious attempts at expanding Hall County Library was in 1957 when a bond issue to relocate it from the courthouse basement failed in a tie vote. A second bond issue two years later lost by 733 votes.
Still another library bond issue for a $1 million regional library was scheduled in 1966, but it was postponed while a search for a site continued. Gainesville Jaycees offered financial and campaign assistance to get the library out of the courthouse basement. But the library had to return $20,000 the Jaycees donated because the only way property could be purchased was through a bond issue.
The old Coca-Cola Building on Green Street was considered as a site for a new library, but after considerable discussion among county, city and library officials, the present location at the intersection of West Academy, Main and Maple streets was selected. It was to be the headquarters of Chestatee Regional Library, which had formed among Lumpkin, Hall and Dawson counties in 1963. Hall County Library later pulled out of the regional organization.
Finally, in 1967, Hall County voters approved a $650,000 bond issue for the library in downtown Gainesville. It was included in an issue with a $1 million courthouse expansion, $600,000 for road projects and a $200,000 expansion of Hall County Hospital, now Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The courthouse expansion project in the overall bond issue was the only one that failed.
The new library was dedicated Feb. 8, 1970. Despite financial struggles since, the system’s branches continues to serve throughout the county.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville 30501; phone, 770- 532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.