Templeton Reid, the guy who made Gainesville famous as the site of the first private mint in the United States, apparently was an eccentric tinker, inventor, entrepreneur and crack rifleman.
His mint, which is commemorated by a historical marker on Gainesville’s downtown square, lasted only a few months, apparently collapsing under accusations that his gold pieces weren’t quite pure.
Bill House, a Gainesville lawyer and coin connoisseur, told the story of the mint at a recent forum at Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University. He says the mint was located somewhere in the vicinity of the Gym of ’36 on West Washington Street. A history of Gainesville by Mrs. John M. Hulsey Sr. put the mint in John Montgomery’s blacksmith shop about 200 feet east of the old Gainesville High School. It operated from July until September 1830.
Because it was dangerous, expensive and time consuming for North Georgia miners to haul their gold all the way to the only mint available in Philadelphia, Reid got the idea of operating one closer to the gold. He minted $2.50, $5 and $10 gold coins, an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 total. It was the first mint to make coins with a dollar value on them, House said.
Today, he said, only about 25 of the $2.50 coins, and eight each of the $5 and $10 pieces are known to exist. Some are in institutions, such as the Smithsonian. A $2.50 Reid coin sold in New Orleans about two months ago for $330,000.
The last time a $5 coin sold in 1980, its price was $299,000, but worth more than $1 million today. The $10 coin has never been known to be sold at public auction, but would be worth considerably more than $1 million.
Some Gainesville-minted coins might still be around, House suggested. An Atlanta woman was rummaging in her attic and found a $5 Templeton Reid coin in an old sewing basket, he said.
While Reid’s mint didn’t go over well, it did lead federal authorities to establish the branch in Dahlonega, which operated from 1838 to 1861, making $1, $2.50 and $3 gold pieces. Confederates took over the mint when the Civil War broke out, but the federal government chose not to continue it after the war.
An anonymous letter writer to Georgia newspapers apparently led to the Gainesville mint’s downfall. The writer charged Reid’s coins were less than pure gold, that a private mint was unconstitutional and that the U.S. mint had more trustworthy qualified craftsmen.
Reid countered with a signed letter disputing his critic’s calculations and the premise that the Gainesville mint was making an excessive profit. Nevertheless, it closed its doors after three months.
Before coming to Gainesville, Reid had been a watch and clock repairman, a silversmith and gunsmith in Milledgeville. Advertising in the Georgia Journal in 1824, he said he would custom-make rifles for $100-$500 and gun barrels for $50.
After the mint closed, he built cotton gins, manufactured and repaired gin and other equipment.
The Federal Union newspaper in 1832 reported Templeton Reid married Liza C. Moulton of Montgomery, Ala.
In that same newspaper in 1839, Reid displayed his gambling bravado and eccentricity while boasting his sharpshooting skills:
“To Rifle Shooters: I challenge any rifleman to meet me on a match to be shot in Columbus between the 25th and last day of May next, the best 21 in 40 or 30 in 40 best, string measure for $1,000 (play or pay). If more than one ‘crack’ will enter, it will be a sweepstakes, free for any number of shooters. If any man takes the match, I will pay all the traveling and other expenses to this place ...”
It isn’t known how he came out.
He was still in the cotton gin equipment business in Columbus as late as January 1851. Some of Reid’s property, including equipment, tools, a rifle and shotgun, was advertised to be sold to satisfy a lien in favor of Seaborn Jones in August 1851. That was the same month in which he died, a newspaper calling him a genius, skilled inventor and mechanic who didn’t “accumulate much of this world’s goods ... one of those good but eccentric men who was his own worst enemy.”
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.