The Northeast Georgia History Center, celebrating a decade in its $4 million building on Gainesville’s Academy Street, got off to a meager beginning in an old fire station in 1981.
At that time it was known as the Georgia Mountains Museum, one of the local organizations under the umbrella of the Georgia Mountains Historical and Cultural Trust. James Mathis, who with his wife, Frances, envisioned a history center and museum, persuaded city officials to allow free use of former Fire Station No. 1 on what was then South Green Street.
Other groups who had space in the building were the Arts Council, Elachee Nature Science Center, Garden Club Council, Georgia Mountains Jubilee, Hall County Historical Society and Georgia Mountain Crafts. Elachee and the Arts Council also sprang from that building into fine facilities of their own.
The fire station proved inadequate almost from the time the museum moved in, said Sue Morris, who was the sole employee as executive director. A Mark Trail exhibit donated by artist Ed Dodd was the impetus for securing more exhibits, including a Victorian room, railroad, medical, Indian, pottery and pioneer exhibits, in addition to books by area authors and a country store.
James Mathis accumulated many of the artifacts that began to show up in the museum and are part of today’s history center. As it became more obvious that the museum needed more space in a finer facility, Gwen Mundy, then president of the museum, enlisted John Jacobs to lead a fund campaign. Architect Steve Hill produced a design, but the money was lacking to start construction.
Jacobs not only secured the money to build the history center, he worked with then-Brenau University president John Burd to use a site on the college campus. That’s why the official name: Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University. Brenau actually owns the building, leasing it for a nominal fee to the history center for 99 years, according to Fleming Weaver, longtime volunteer and board member. The Mathises provided a sizable donation as an endowment to maintain the building.
Morris attributed the success of the old museum to the volunteers who led tours, received visitors and did whatever else needed to be done. She recalled an instance when the museum was responsible for the massive Georgia Mountains Jubilee downtown, and so much still needed to be done the night before it opened. “I called (volunteer) Elizabeth Rhoades, and she got people together, and they came down, and we pulled it off.”
During its time in the old fire station, the museum was host to four Smithsonian traveling exhibits.
Of the present history center, Morris said, “I’m so proud of it, knowing where it came from. It’s such an asset.”
Weaver is equally as proud. “It’s so much more than what I thought it would be,” he said. “I had no idea.”
He, too, mentions the more than 100 volunteers who keep the present history center humming, along with two full-time and two-part-time employees led by executive director Glen Kyle.
“Programs have blossomed,” he said. Monthly forums on various history topics from throughout North Georgia are popular. Family Days are well attended, as well as other special events throughout the year. More than 3,000 school children tour the center every year.
As successful as the history center is today, space and finances remain challenges. Rotating exhibits help keep them fresh, but the basement of the building is brimming with various artifacts that people have donated down through the years.
Northeast Georgia History Center has expanded outside the building’s doors. Already on the campus was a Victorian-era home that houses Brenau programs. A Freedom Garden was added to honor military veterans.
One of the most significant treasures adjacent to the main building is the Chief White Path Cabin. It was moved to Gainesville from Ellijay by Don Cooley, a descendant of the Cherokee Indian who had lived in it. Cooley donated it to the history center in 1995. A blacksmith shop, donated by the Hoyt Herrin family, is on display inside the cabin.
Many other benefactors and volunteers too numerous to name are associated with the success of Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.