Before the sprawling housing developments of the 1990s, with names evoking imaginary lakes and forests, and before the cookie-cutter developments of the 1950s, touted for their modernity, there were the mill neighborhoods.
Created as almost a model of socialism, Gainesville’s neighborhood of Chicopee is one of these neighborhoods, and today the narrow streets and tidy brick homes look almost exactly as they did when they were built in 1927 — except today the trees are a lot bigger.
Located on Atlanta Highway just south of Gainesville’s city limits, the neighborhood was home to workers at Johnson & Johnson’s mill across the street. Just a few decades ago, everyone who lived in Chicopee either worked at the mill or was related to someone who did. Today, the neighborhood is slowly seeing that history fade as each home turns over to a new owner.
But even the newcomers, who don’t have personal ties to the now decaying plant across the street, say they continue to feel that neighborhood bond.
“When I moved here about eight years ago it was mostly the old people that were left over from the factory, but as they move out younger couples are moving in,” said John Compton, noting that his new neighbor across the street is a young woman moving up from Decatur. When she asked him how the neighborhood would fare for a single woman, he didn’t bat an eye. “Everybody keeps an eye on things.”
Nancy Gunter, 61, who now lives outside Athens but grew up in the neighborhood, said because everyone who grew up in the neighborhood knew everyone else — and all went to the same school, shopped at the same neighborhood store and went to either the Methodist or the Baptist church — they continue to hold those connections years later.
And today, despite the neighborhood’s changing demographic, those connections are being passed on to the next generation.
“We all had the same background, even if we didn’t have the same family background; we all had the same upbringing background. We all went to the same school, there was a clinic, a store, a drug store, soda shop, we had a florist, beauty shop, barber shop — it was self-contained,” she said, adding that this personal history makes the neighborhood different from the subdivisions of today.
“In subdivisions, you may live in a subdivision but you may not know your neighbor,” she said. But Chicopee was a place “where everybody knew everybody. And we traveled all over the village — I’ve been in every home in the village. ... We have a very close bond.”
Compton agreed that this history of the neighborhood is what separates it from today’s idea of a subdivision.
“I think probably because most of the people were established here to begin with, unlike the transient subdivision where nobody knows each other and they’re all from different parts of the country,” he said. “But I think people here, the mood was already set here, and they come to meet you when you move in. ... we all get the same lawn people to do our yards; you just say hey to everybody.”
The Chicopee neighborhood was built along with the plant in 1927, when Johnson & Johnson decided it would be wise to invest in a textile mill in the South, according to written accounts from residents and published accounts in The Times. After considering sites in Rome and Athens, the company settled on the site just south of Gainesville, where at the time there was a county prison and farmland.
The plant, in 1927, was state of the art, with gleaming white tiles on the inside to enhance cleanliness. It produced surgical gauze, cheese cloth and bunting. The homes, too, were modern for the time, equipped with indoor plumbing and electric. The power lines throughout the neighborhood were mainly underground, and water, electricity and trash pickup was paid for by the company. The homes, all brick, evoke a craftsman style and have either three, four or five rooms.
The neighborhood was self-contained; there was a grocery store, barber shop, service station and a health clinic. Residents from the time said they only needed to leave the village to go clothes shopping.
“We had the company store, we had a drug store, we had a grocery store, meat market, barber shop, post office and of course behind the store was the service station,” said longtime resident Joe Holcomb. “It was a self-contained community.”
The company sold the village in 1956, giving the residents the first option to buy the homes. For a while the store operated privately, but was later torn down; the new Chicopee Baptist Church now sits on the store’s old site.
Gainesville Action Ministries is now housed in the former health clinic, where, Holcomb said, a visiting nurse he considered to be Florence Nightingale served 24 hours a day. The company also built a school, originally located behind the plant, and each day the kids would get an hour to march home for lunch before returning to classes.
“We had great teachers. Of course, it was just grades one through seven,” Holcomb said. “When you got through Chicopee you got a good education.”
And because everyone had at least one family member working at the mill, everyone knew everyone else, Holcomb said.
“As children, we had to be careful what we did and how we did it because it would be known,” he said. “We didn’t realize what we had; we thought everybody had it. But they didn’t.”
That same sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Phil Carpenter, senior pastor at Chicopee Baptist Church. A former Hall County schools principal, he grew up in the neighborhood and has been at the church about 2 1/2 years.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up. The ones who grew up in Chicopee, we did not realize what we had,” he said. “It was a great place for our parents to work, great place to grow up.”
Gunter said every child who has grown up in the neighborhood has a story. From the afternoon baseball games to the family picnics to Halloween, there were enough kids in the neighborhood to get into at least a little bit of trouble.
“There’s a family that used to live there, they lived behind the plant. I used to love to go over there but I had to cross the highway, which was something I was not supposed to do — I was probably 4 or 5,” she said. “There was a band of gypsies who used to travel through the woods. I used to get in a lot of trouble going over there, but I wanted to be a gypsy and I thought if I went over there they would take me; I could be a gypsy.
“But then they saw me one day and I ran home.”
That house near the gypsies, as it turned out, was the childhood home of Carpenter, she said.
Halloween was another time when kids got a little rambunctious.
“One year on Halloween most of us got together and we put everybody’s trash can in the ball field. We didn’t dump it,” she said. “Then my brother and I realized we had to put ours in there; it would look like we were the only ones who did it — of course, it was most of the kids.”
Holcomb added his own account of Halloween year earlier.
“The morning after Halloween, it would look like a tornado been through here — garbage cans on top of flagpoles. We used to have some big swings out in the grove over by the highway, and they might be over here on this street,” he said. “One year they rolled all the cars they could find, they rolled them down to the service station and took the Valcors out of the inner tubes.
“I happened to be in a school play that night.”
Carpenter said property ownership today is having an effect on the demographics of the neighborhood. There are more rental properties today than there used to be, and not everyone knows everyone like they used to.
“The big difference is, you know the mill is not operating now, and the folks in here are scattered — neighbors don’t know neighbors,” he said. “You don’t have that closeness in the community that it once was.”
But still, many newer residents say they were attracted to the unique houses, the narrow streets, the shady trees.
And the quiet.
“It’s awesome, I love it,” said Tiffany Carpenter, who moved into the neighborhood less than a year ago with her daughter, Tatum. “It’s quiet, no traffic. Where I live there’s not cars and people up all night and radios blaring.”
And while 14-year-old Jack Bailey lamented the lack of other 14-year-olds in the neighborhood, he still agreed it was a good place to live.
“It’s really fun but it’s quiet,” he said while playing basketball with friends at Chicopee Baptist church. His friends, as it turned out, were from outside the neighborhood. “It’s really kind of boring.”
But by all accounts, quiet is one trait the neighborhood has kept during the years. Even with kids moving trash cans on Halloween, it was still a quiet, family-oriented place, Holcomb said.
“One thing, you felt safe. And you felt like you were being cared for,” he said of growing up in the neighborhood. “It was just a, well, you really didn’t have anything to dread. ... Growing up you had your friends, associates. You knew where the limits were.”
And even though everyone’s parents worked together and the boss lived down the street, Holcomb said it never felt like everyone was in your business. Even today, Compton said, neighbors will still welcome you when you move in and make you dinner every so often.
“People more or less minded their own business,” Holcomb said. “It was pretty quiet.”