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Launching Lanier: 60 years ago Monday, ground was broken on Buford Dam
A large crowd gathers for the ground breaking ceremony for Buford Dam on March 1, 1950.

Harold Martin had two things motivating him when he stood on the hillside with his 8 mm camera.

The Hall County man loved tinkering with machines, particularly farm equipment, and he was thrilled about the prospect of a new lake in Gainesville’s backyard.

So there he stood, panning over the lush Gwinnett-Hall countryside with his camera and capturing on film the earthmovers and trucks as they chugged along, grading and moving dirt to make way for the Buford Dam.

For good measure, perhaps to preserve the historic moment, he filmed the sign announcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project.

"There’s not many people left who saw them build the dam," said his wife, Dot.

Monday marks the 60th anniversary of the ceremonial groundbreaking that brought some 3,500 people to the site of what is now Buford Dam.

A black-and-white photograph shows dignitaries, including Gov. Herman E. Talmadge, picking at and turning dirt with shovels.

The initial contractor for the first phase of construction was a Minneapolis firm that was awarded the contract in June 1951 for $2.8 million. The work also included construction of two saddle dikes and an access road.

The firm subcontracted work to an Oregon company that drilled three penstocks and a sluice tunnel 246 feet in length to allow for power production and emergency releases of water downstream.

Six years later, flood gates were closed and Lake Lanier began filling, realizing talk of a dam and reservoir that began in earnest following the end of World War II.

The River and Harbor Act, which was approved by Congress in 1946, authorized "a multiple purpose dam on the Chattahoochee River at Buford in the interest of navigation, flood control and power and water supply."

Talk of a new lake pleased Harold Martin, a Gillsville native, eager to get out on the water with his family.

"I had been out in a boat a couple of times. I went to Allatoona and Chatuge (lakes) a time or two, so that’s the reason I wanted a boat," he said.

As far as going to the lake with his camera, "I was just interested in them building the lake and the dam," said Martin, who has lived off Atlanta Highway since 1952. "We went pretty often."

Work progressed and "I got the fever wanting a boat," he said. "I ordered a kit boat from Sears Roebuck. It was a 21-foot cruiser, and it took me two years to put it together. I started it in 1955 and launched it in 1957."

Another home movie shows a young, lanky Harold Martin working on the wooden frame of his boat (later named "Barbara Nell" after his daughter) in a garage and looking up at the camera.

Later, "I carried it over to the shop to put the motor on it. The first motor I had ... was a 40-horsepower Scott-Atwater," he said, watching the movie, now converted to DVD, with his hand wrapped around a remote control.

The Martins’ camera also documented an early family trip to the lake, possibly before Lanier reached full pool of 1,070 feet above sea level in May 1959.

They, along with another couple and their children, sped along the water in the boat and, at one point, passed by the new dam. Several in the party tried their hand at skiing behind the boat on a round disk the Martins now use as a tabletop on their back patio.

"Those were good days," said Dot Martin, smiling.

The boat lasted about six years and "it dry-rotted," said her husband. "It was made out of Philippine mahogany plyboard."

The Martins later owned a houseboat, "Sugar Shack," for 17 years.

"Now, that was really fun," said Harold, now 86.

The new lake would mean hours of sun-filled recreation for many. For others, it was a less pleasing prospect, at least initially, as they had to give up homesteads and other property for the 38,000-acre project.

A story in the April 14, 1954, edition of The Times gave an account of the first land purchase for the lake.

Henry Shadburn, then 81, was paid $4,100 for his home and 100 acres in Forsyth County, roughly $1 an acre.

Some landowners resisted and became subjects of a civil action in U.S. District Court. The land disputes were resolved by the time flood gates were closed in 1956.

Betty Payne recalled her family having to move from their 90 acres off what is now Jim Crow Road in West Hall.

Now 68 and living in Oakwood, she couldn’t remember her age at the time or her parents’ reactions.

But she recalled being excited, along with her siblings.

"We were glad to have a new home," Payne said. "My dad bought 16 acres from his brother and ... we had running water. I can remember our old home didn’t even have electricity until about a year or two before we moved."

She said she later was thumbing through a book and found that her father had received $7,000 for the property.

"But a lot of people didn’t get that," Payne said.

She recalled returning to the old homeplace during the drought of 2007-09.

"You could walk out to it. It was kind of up on a hill," Payne said. "I’ve got a lot of pictures of that. There were a lot of rocks in the old foundation of one of the chicken houses — it was pretty much intact.

"We found some old plows and broken glass. You can tell where the well was."

The whole experience was "very emotional," Payne said. "It was like me going back home again."

As Lake Lanier reached full pool in October, then continued to climb as rain continued to pour, water covered the property.

Today, the lake stands at just above 1,070 feet above sea level, as the corps keeps trying, through water releases, to drop the level to the winter pool of 1,070 feet.

The Martins, who have slowed their pace in recent years, largely because of health problems, still keep up with the lake’s goings-on.

"I’d like to have a home on the lake, but I can’t afford such as that," he said. "... That would be nice to have a home and a boat dock, and I could go sit on the dock and fish."