View 2011 coverage of the 75th anniversary of the deadly 1936 tornado here.
For Betty Martin, Thursday’s dedication of the Cooper Pants Factory historic marker hit home in a very personal way.
The Gainesville woman was 2 years old when her mother and grandmother were killed in a fire that broke out at the Cooper Pants Factory during the tornado of 1936 that devastated downtown Gainesville.
“This is emotional and brings back memories that I never really had,” said Martin, now 81, of the ceremony remembering the nearly 75 people killed in the fire.
Under sunny skies and against occasionally sharp breezes, Gainesville and Georgia Historical Society officials unveiled the marker at the corner of Maple and Broad streets, the factory site.
Joining them was Garland Reynolds Jr., a Gainesville architect who helped spearhead the marker placement.
Reynolds thanked city and society officials for their work in the effort “in recognizing this tragic and important event in Georgia history.”
He recalled his father telling stories of how he stood nearby and heard the “screams of the women trapped inside, all the while flames engulfing the storm-ravaged building.”
Reynolds’ father, who worked as a clerk in a nearby butcher shop, escaped injury himself from the tornado “by diving under a meat block table as the ceiling caved in.”
The factory fire “still ranks as the greatest loss of life in a fire caused by a tornado in U.S. history,” Reynolds told the audience of about 50 people.
The tornado on April 6, 1936, killed an estimated 203 people and became one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
Three days after the storm, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made an unscheduled stop in Gainesville on his way to Warm Springs. He returned in April 1938, attending the dedication of the new square that bore his name and honored the rebuilding work aided by federal money.
The marker describes the factory fire, which was “the single largest contributor to over 200 deaths associated with the tornado,” and the roles of Roosevelt and the U.S. government.
“Rebuilding of Gainesville focused on providing better paved streets and the construction of the fire station, courthouse and city hall, forerunners of modern fire safety-compliant structures,” the marker says.
The effort to secure the marker stems from Reynolds’ push in June 2012 for Gainesville City Council to pursue an archaeological investigation of the site.
The city’s special projects manager, Jessica Tullar, began to pursue formal recognition of the site, working with Reynolds to gather information requested by the society, such as the disaster’s effects on building and fire codes.
Two weeks after the tornado, the city passed an ordinance establishing a city building code “that placed Gainesville far ahead of other American towns and cities of comparable size,” Reynolds said.
Construction of concrete fireproof buildings, such as Gainesville City Hall and the old Hall County Courthouse, which stand opposite each other on Roosevelt Square, followed.
The International Building Code adopted by Gainesville and most other U.S. cities requires that a public building’s structural system must be designed to withstand winds up to 115 mph.
“There is no code anywhere that deals with a building being able to withstand tornado winds like the category EF4 that struck here in 1936, with winds well over 220 mph,” Reynolds said.
“We all know Gainesville is in a path historically frequented by tornadoes,” he said. “When another might strike, we can only hope never again here.”
As for Martin, the only memories of her mother are the ones that were shared by family, including a loving stepmother. So, the gesture by the city and others to remember the fire victims with a permanent marker is much appreciated.
“I’m proud they’re doing something. I really am,” she said.