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Lives lost in pants factory fire after 1936 tornado to be commemorated by marker
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The unknown dead grave site at Alta Vista Cemetery from the 1936 Gainesville tornado.

Historical marker dedication

What: Site of Cooper Pants Factory destroyed in 1936 tornado

When: 2 p.m. Thursday

Where: Corner of Maple and Broad streets, across from Robson Event Center in Gainesville

Such as the tragic one Wanda Brock of Gainesville grew up hearing.

Her great-aunt Hattie Mae Mincey, a Dahlonega native, and her daughters Gertrude and Pansy were among those killed in the Cooper Pants Factory fire that started during the tornado. Strangely, family members found Gertrude’s body, but when they returned later to recover it, it was gone.

“It was a horrible time,” Brock said.

Gainesville is hoping to bring some closure to that dark stain on Gainesville’s past with a historical marker dedication remembering factory victims, set for 2 p.m. Thursday at the now-vacant site.

“Every now and then, things come together and make (the work) all seem worthwhile,” said Garland Reynolds Jr., a Gainesville architect and primary force pushing for the marker.

The effort to secure the marker has a history of its own.

In June 2012, Reynolds petitioned Gainesville City Council to pursue an archaeological investigation of the site of the old House of Kustom building, which was scheduled for demolition at the time.

“The city should not be able to raze this without some recognition,” he said.

Gainesville had held a ceremony and unveiled a memorial to all the tornado victims on April 6, 2011, but there was nothing to mark the factory fire.

Accounts say the twister caused the factory to collapse, sparking the fire that trapped and killed between 40 and 125 people, mostly young women.

The story was important to Reynolds because it was one his father often recounted.

“My father worked in the butcher shop just around the corner,” he said. “He would remember going by there and hearing the women scream. It affected him all his life.”

The city’s special projects manager, Jessica Tullar, began to pursue formal recognition of the victims who died at the site off Maple and Broad streets, working through the Georgia Historical Society.

City staff and Reynolds began working in earnest to gather information to address the society’s request for more details.

The historical group’s Marker Review Committee approved the city’s application in May 2013, but the society wanted the city to find documentation that the fire led to new regulations on building fire codes.

Reynolds said that “while exact records may not have been recorded, or even exist, on the effects of this catastrophic factory fire ... there is ample physical evidence that the event caused downtown buildings to be constructed in fire-designated districts, with materials such as concrete and steel, and spaced far enough apart for fire truck access.”

In a September 2013 email to Tullar, Reynolds wrote, “This is especially meaningful to me as an architect because these new buildings were forerunners of modern fire and building code compliant structures and considerably ahead of their time.”

“I think that’s the good part that’s come out of this, that Gainesville was far ahead of its time,” he said in an interview last week.

Examples of the new construction included the old Hall County Courthouse and Gainesville City Hall, which sit opposite of each other on Roosevelt Square in downtown Gainesville. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke there at a dedication ceremony on April 24, 1938.

Reynolds noted that “real fire codes did not even come into existence” until after World War II and a deadly fire at the Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel, where two Gainesville High School girls were among 119 who died on Dec. 7, 1946.

Work to get the marker secured ended with Gainesville City Council voting last April — nearly 78 years to the day after the disaster — to approve its placement.

The city is paying $2,500 of the $5,000 total cost for the marker. The other half will be paid by the historical society. The marker’s upkeep, including replacement as needed, will be the city’s responsibility.

Elyse Butler, membership and outreach associate for the historical society, said the marker would give history not only of the factory but also the tornado’s overall impact. She said she hasn’t visited the site yet but is looking forward to the trip.

As for Tullar, the dedication marks the culmination of what has been an emotional experience.

“When you read those (accounts), you can only imagine the fear and pain (of the victims),” she said. “Every time I read them, I get chills.”

Reynolds said he is just grateful that city took his suggestion and ran with it.

Tullar “deserves all the credit for securing the marker,” he said.

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