One of Hall County’s most colorful characters was H.W.J. Ham, a journalist and lawyer who became nationally famous as an orator.
He was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s on the Chautauqua circuit, a series of programs that included speakers, music and other entertainment. Some compared his wit and oratorical skills to that of Mark Twain.
Ham is said to have had only 18 months of formal schooling, but spent his youth picking cotton, splitting rails and driving steers on the family farm in North Carolina. Somehow he learned enough to be admitted to the bar. But journalism was his calling. He worked on several Georgia newspapers, making a name for himself on the Warrenton Clipper when he campaigned to keep Georgia’s capital in Milledgeville instead of moving it to Atlanta.
That notoriety produced several newspaper job offers, and he settled on becoming co-editor of the Gainesville Eagle in 1879. Some years later he bought the Gainesville Industrial News, changed the name to the Georgia Cracker, and quickly earned respect around the state.
Politics also interested him, and he clerked for a time in the U.S. Congress. It was when he became a state legislator from Hall County that his considerable speaking ability surfaced. At the same time, chautauquas were peaking across the country, creating a demand for lecturers.
The American Lyceum Union ranked him "as one of the foremost lecturers and platform entertainers in the country." Wrote the Columbus, Ohio, newspaper after one of his talks: "Orator Ham had his audience laughing, howling, cheering and applauding. He was the lion of the occasion. His word picture of the ‘Snollygaster in Politics’ met with instant recognition. When Col. Ham finished, the entire audience arose and gave him three cheers."
That despite his lectures running up to two hours long.
Ham coined the "snollygaster" term while in the legislature. He explained what it meant: "The snollygaster has a mouth, and always has it with him in good working order. He has no character, is always without principle, and it makes little difference what side of a question he is on, so that side wins, and he can enjoy the outcome. He is always ready to take up a side issue. He is the man who has sought to bring into modern politics a union of business and politics, claiming that it is more expedient to have commercialism subservient to politics. He has made a study of pulling strings and knows how to meet leaders and bulldoze them. ... If affairs do not go to suit him, he leaves his party and forms a new one. When he once gets a little power, it is useless to try to remove him, as he will stoop to anything to gain his end. He has the idea in his head that an office of some sort is the only way to get a living."
Such wise words would be more than appropriate in today’s partisan political climate.
The demands on his time traveling as a speaker forced Ham to forego his career as a journalist and reduce his active involvement in politics as candidates running for various offices across the country courted his support.
His speaking engagements wore him down, and friends began to notice his health failing. He suffered a heart attack in Chicago, but eventually made the train trip home. Once in Gainesville, his condition improved, but a few weeks later in December 1907, another heart attack killed him at age 56.
When Ham served in the state legislature, he wrote a book, "Representative Georgians," in which he profiled public service leaders. He said he wouldn’t include himself, but friends urged him to. He refused to write his own profile. Gainesville Eagle editor J.H. Burr wrote it instead and commented, "His fluent graceful and attractive style made him considerable reputation as a writer, while his versatility of genius, constant flow of humor and sparkling wit won for him the respect and warm friendship of his contemporaries and readers."
Despite his speaking engagements across the country, Ham is said to have never delivered a chautauqua talk in Gainesville.
Longtime residents still remember H.W.J. Ham’s son, Walter Ham, driving around Gainesville blowing the horn in his vintage Pierce Arrow automobile.
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 on gainesvilletimes.com.