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Spittoon miss caused blaze at courthouse
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The old Hall County Courthouse, built in 1884 after a fire destroyed the previous one, was done in by the 1936 tornado that demolished downtown Gainesville. But for a mere coincidence, it almost burned down a quarter century earlier.

A courthouse employee, Howell Smith, happened to go into the courthouse one Saturday morning, when the building normally was closed. He discovered smoke coming from the area of a spittoon, which had caught fire apparently from the butt of somebody’s cigar. The spittoon, the familiar brass one once common in government buildings and elsewhere, apparently was in a wooden box to contain misses by sloppy tobacco chewers. However, the box also caught cigar butts, some of them still smoldering.

The fire damaged the floor in that corner of the courthouse and also caused smoke damage to the surrounding walls. The courthouse itself, though, had been saved. In repairing the damage, courthouse officials decided the walls should be painted pink.

The courthouse also caught fire in 1930, again from a cigar or cigarette butt somebody discarded on the wooden porch. But that fire also was put out before serious damage.

Spittoons are long gone from public buildings across the state and probably across the country. But they were still around as late as the 1960s and are now considered collectors’ items more likely found in antique shops and used as flower vases or some other decoration.

Hall County’s had its share of tornadoes, notably those in 1903 and 1936 that killed hundreds. Others have struck in 1973 and 1998, causing fatalities and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

One lesser-known tornado hit Gainesville March 27, 1884. It caused injuries, but no fatalities. However, damage was heavy. At least 25 houses were destroyed, including those of Dr. T.J. Simmons and Dr. W.C. Wilkes, first co-presidents of the Female Baptist Seminary, now Brenau University.

People raised $1,000 to help the victims repair damage to their homes. The storm touched down in north Gainesville. Meanwhile, four miles north of the city, hail as big as goose eggs covered the ground. In those days, people called such a storm a “cyclone.”

Cooperation between Hall County and its municipal governments is sometime suspect. But when Shallowford Road was being hard-surfaced back in 1907, the county let the city use its equipment. The county had macadamized the road from the Iron Bridge at the Chattahoochee River to the city limits. The city would finish the job to what was then Broad Street and also widen Broad Street to 20 feet. Macadamizing was the method of hard-surfacing in those days, packing down stone on streets and roads.

Hall County’s population according to the 1900 census was 20,752, up from 18,047 in 1890. But it wasn’t the most populous county in what was then the 9th Congressional District. Gwinnett County had 25,585 residents, and even Jackson County was ahead of Hall with 24,039 population. Gainesville’s population at the time was 4,382.

In 1907, Gainesville stores agreed to new closing hours. They would not open Sundays, and during the week could not remain open past midnight. The exception was for druggists filling prescriptions and doctors’ offices. Durst’s Ice Cream Parlor on the square advertised in the summer you could cool off in five minutes for 5 cents with a dip or two of its ice cream.

In the early 1900s, before Gainesville’s First Baptist Church was built at the corner of Green and Washington streets, the lot the church owned was found to contain 75 unmarked graves. The bodies were all buried in a north-to-south direction. The graves were removed to Alta Vista Cemetery.

Georgia has had a statewide general sales tax since 1951. When it was passed, it was for education at all levels. It rose from 3 percent to 4 percent in 1989.

Georgia also had a temporary two-year sales tax in 1929 on businesses and manufacturers. It was passed because of a budget emergency caused by the Great Depression. State officials back then kept some promises as they apparently let the tax expire as planned.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at