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History center exhibit highlights 9 presidential visits to the county
The lectern used by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 during their visits to Gainesville is the centerpiece of a presidential display at the Northeast Georgia History Center. - photo by Tom Reed

The next time you drive down Bradford Street in Gainesville, or take a stroll around the square, look down.

You could very well be traveling the same ground as some of the nation’s top men.

Of the 43 men to serve in the nation’s highest office, nine have paid a visit to Hall County.

The Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University opened an exhibit Thursday honoring the presidents who have come to the area.

"Amongst the People — The Chief Executive Visits Northeast Georgia" will be on display until the first of June.

Jeff Pierce, researcher and designer of the exhibit, worked with curators at the White House to ensure everything from the color on the walls to the height of the curtains would be an accurate representation of the East Room, the historic banquet room in the White House. The entrance to the exhibit was made to look like Cross Hall, presidential portraits hang on its walls as they do in the White House.

Visitors to the center can browse presidential memorabilia and learn about the circumstances that brought the nation’s leaders to the area.

"People have been fascinated to know that there have been nine presidents here," Pierce said. "It’s almost a quarter of all of them, and it’s really because of the railroad. All of them were here because of the railroad, and the first two were here because of the federal road that came through Hall County."

Andrew Jackson passed through the county in 1818, the same year it was founded. James Monroe and Gen. Edmund P. Gaines passed through the new county the next year. The city of Gainesville, which formed four years later, was named after the general.

"Gen. Gaines was here, and he had no idea that there would be a town here named for him," Pierce said.

Pierce began research for the exhibit two years ago. He began the project by learning about Woodrow Wilson, whose daughters were born in Gainesville.

While Wilson’s ties may be the strongest to the area, several other presidents also made a lasting impression on the city of Gainesville.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt paid two visits to the city in 1937 and 1939, after a tornado ravaged downtown Gainesville and killed more than 200 people.

A minute and a half long video of Roosevelt’s speech is a highlight of the exhibit.

"One of the neatest things we found is the video of Roosevelt’s speech," Pierce said. "Nobody has seen that in 75 years."

The clip was located in a film warehouse in Massachusetts.

Another video shows the speech given by Lyndon B. Johnson, who visited the city in 1964.

Pierce’s father, a police officer, escorted the president from his car to the podium. A photo of his father and the president in action is on display.

"He said he was impressed Johnson wasn’t as big as he thought he was," Pierce said laughing as he looked at the picture.

Gainesville resident Frances Miller, 98, attended the opening as a guest of honor. She remembers Johnson’s visit in detail.

Miller said she and Johnson were distantly related; both families hailed from Oglethorpe County in Georgia. Johnson invited Miller and her family to sit on stage with him while he spoke.

She said she showed the president a photo of her father and he laughed, telling her he had the "Johnson ears."

"After they left here, he wrote us a letter by hand," Miller said. "Lyndon Johnson wrote us the sweetest letter, and I still have that letter. He was just plain folk, just like we are."

The center, located at 322 Academy St. in Gainesville, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

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