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A life in history
In her 101 years in Hall County, Lizzie McGee recalls a simpler, harder life
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Mill houses still stand near the former Gainesville Mill. The streets behind the old mill are filled with homes once owned by the mill's many employees. Lizzie McGee said she was born in a house on Dean Street, but when she was just 1 month old her father moved the family around the corner to a larger home on Ridge Road.

When Lizzie McGee was 1 month old, her parents scooped her up, along with her six sisters and four brothers, and moved the entire Chester family to a big white house off Ridge Road in Gainesville.

It was the spring of 1907, and the family lived in the neighborhood around Gainesville Mill, near today's Industrial Boulevard and Queen City Parkway. In summertime, the family spent most days outside picking watermelon and digging up potatoes. Every so often a man would come by and grind the wheat, or they would take their corn to a mill to make it into meal.

Today, McGee lives a much quieter life. And while she spends much of her days looking out a window in her Winder nursing home, she has enough memories of her 101 years in Hall County to keep her mind busy, remembering simpler times.

"I was born up there in Gainesville, there on Ridge Road, on the side of the Gainesville Mill," she said. "You can see the Gainesville Mill and the (train) depot there. We'd sit up on that Ridge Road, we'd see every train that went up and down the highway over there."

As a child, McGee said she attended school for a short time in a house on Dean Street, before the Gainesville Mill school was built in 1918.

"And they built that new school down there near the cotton mill, and they marched us all down there; I guess I was about 6 years old then," she said. "...They marched us down."

J.D Twitty was the first principal of the school, according to published reports in The Times, and his daughter, Mrs. J.W. Milner, succeeded him and was principal for the next 35 years.

"All them people I knowed back then are dead; I don't know of nobody, all but one that I know of, but she ain't 100 yet," McGee said. "All the rest of them are schoolteachers, Miss Twitty and her daughters, they've all been dead for years."

Growing up in Hall County

In the early 1900s in Hall County, life was simple but also hard. McGee recounted multiple family members and friends who suffered early deaths following accidents. One man, the husband of a friend who she grew up with, worked for the city fire department.

"His truck happened to overload its brakes or something or other up there on the hill, and it went down toward the fire department downtown and he tried to stop it and it hit him and broke both his legs, I think," McGee said. "He didn't live long, her husband did. She had one kid by him and her girl lives in one house and she lives in (the other)."

McGee's daughter, 82-year-old Lillie Rooks, said her mother never talked much about growing up in Hall County in the early part of the 20th century. Although McGee did tell her daughter stories about Rooks' grandparents, and their roots in Fannin County.

"She said they lived in Fannin County and they had a creek and they put their pickle beans and kraut in churns and worked in the fields and stuff like that," Rooks said.

Rooks, like her mother, also worked at the family farm off Ridge Road.

"I remember myself, I remember digging taters and having watermelon and peas and the wheat men coming and doing the flour, making the flour and taking the corn to the mill and having corn meal made," she said, later adding that "We always had plenty to eat. We always had lots of vegetables."

While McGee said there wasn't much in Gainesville at that time, it's the stories of dirt roads and playing after school that make her memories so unique.

"Gainesville wasn't nothing when I was a little girl," she said. "There wasn't but a few stores there, but they had a streetcar, and there was two handboys running the streetcar, I remember that. It didn't cost but a dime.

"You could get on it and ride to New Holland (Mill). Mother sent me and my brother with a load of stuff to New Holland. I remember that when I was a little girl."

Local author and historian Gordon Sawyer said a trolley ran, starting in the late 1800s, from the Gainesville square to three destinations: One route took it down Green Street to the end of Riverside Drive, where residents would go swimming; a second route went from the square to Gainesville Mill; and a third went from downtown to New Holland.

"Now you (could) get on it and go straight down Main Street all the way to the railroad station - not the one where the Arts Council is but at the end of Main Street; Gainesville Mill is right across the railroad farm from the trolley stop. Gainesville Mill is the big mill that is down in that area," Sawyer said. "Later on, you had a wing of the trolley that went out from the square to the other mill, New Holland. But that was not a major part of it. So actually, she could have gotten on the trolley at Gainesville Mill, go around the square, down Green Street and down past Riverside Military Academy."

Finding a love

When she was 13, McGee started working at the Gainesville Mill. During her career, she ended up working at all three mills in the Gainesville area - including New Holland and Chicopee Mill on the south side of town.

"It wasn't half as big as it is now. They just kept building and building," she said of Gainesville Mill. "And you'd go out there to the company store, and they just kept building and building. There used to be a pasture there where they call New Street; that used to be a pasture."

It was at the Gainesville Mill where McGee met her second husband, Melmar McGee. Her first marriage, when she was 17, was fleeting; her husband, an Anderson, left her with one daughter, Lillie.

A few years later, McGee said she started talking with a man who worked on a nearby machine at the mill.

"He got to where he could run two sides, and I had eight or 10, and they gave me two sides over there, happened to be right next to him," she said. "He was just learning to spin, and I'd go through my two frames there and I'd go through his too, and it didn't amount to much.

"And we just got talking together and that's how come I meet him," she added. "I didn't think I'd ever marry him. We had one kid."

Her second daughter, Melmar Ann, died when she was 30. She was nine years younger than Lillie, but Rooks said she never considered her a half sister - she loved her like a sister.

"Melmar Ann was my half sister but we never said that 'cause I couldn't tell she wasn't my own sister," Rooks said. "I was 9 when she was born. I always loved her to death."

Going home again

McGee said she still stays active, and has crocheted more than 100 large doilies that she gives to friends and her doctor. Every time she goes to see her doctor, in fact, she said he gets a doily.

She's given all her grandchildren photos from when she was growing up, and her jewelry has been handed out, too, she said. "I had a pretty ring I wore on my little finger for years and years," she said, slowly rubbing her left pinkie. "I then gave (it to) one of my grand babies; she went to high school and she now wears it on her little finger."

McGee said her mother lived to be 90, even after birthing and raising 11 children. But her father, she said, died when he was in his 60s. The same was true of her own husband, who was killed before his time after being hit by a drunken driver.

Today, the white house with the wide front porches and a pantry for Mother's canning is gone, moved up Athens Highway years ago. McGee said she was able to get the red front door off the house, and she gave that to her granddaughter.

"I was born there on Dean Street, the first house on Dean Street, but Dad had bought this house up there on Ridge Road. ... We had a big farm up there," she said. "I was raised right there on Ridge Road on the right going up toward Athens Highway. But now I guess about 10 or 20 (houses) have been built, a big shopping center right down over the hill from where I used to live."

Rooks added that the lot where their home used to stand is now a Georgia Power substation.

McGee's parents are buried near each other in a Gainesville cemetery, along with her husband, three sisters and their husbands and a brother and his wife. And there's a spot picked out for McGee, too, she said, that's been bought and paid for.

"I bought that years and years ago, and I paid for my funeral and expenses 15 years ago, or 16," she said. "I've paid for my casket and I bought it and everything, so Lillie won't be out much, other than taking me to the cemetery.

"I didn't think I'd live no hundred-and-something year old, but I knew if I lived a hundred years, that would be paid."

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