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Tornado of '36 memories still strong
Residents remember tragic day 78 years ago; Pants factory marker planned to mark site of fire
Tom McGee remembers arriving in Gainesville and seeing the damage the weekend after a tornado had ravaged the city on April 6, 1936.

Soon after Mary Louise Hulsey arrived in Gainesville in 1945, she got a quick history lesson whenever dark clouds started to fill the sky.

Local residents, especially survivors of the deadly 1936 tornado, “would all start getting panicky,” said Hulsey, who today lives at The Holbrook, a retirement community in North Hall County.

The storm killed more than 200 and is still on record as one of the deadliest in U.S. history. It still evokes vivid memories among the few survivors remaining and by stories passed down through families.

Its lasting impression also helped influence a recent move by the city to mark the site of the Cooper Pants factory, where a fire sparked by the tornado killed 60 to 70 workers. By some counts, it’s the highest tornado-related death toll in a single building in U.S. history.

Last week, Gainesville City Council voted to place a historical marker at the now-vacant site at Broad and Maple streets, splitting the $5,000 cost with the Georgia Historical Society.

“They waited a little long,” Hulsey said, chuckling a bit. “But I think it’s timely. There’s still a few people left who remember it. And it’s nice to honor the ones who didn’t live through the storm.”

Hulsey’s interest in the storm goes beyond just hearing about it secondhand. Her husband, John Burl Hulsey, was a storm survivor, who wasn’t shy about sharing his gripping account of that day, including with The Times three years before he died.

And her husband’s grandfather, John M. Hulsey, owned the pants factory up until two weeks before the tornado.

“He sold it to some company in New York, which was a blessing because ... it’s no telling how many lawsuits would have been made against him,” Mary Hulsey said.

Her husband ended up with some of the factory’s red bricks, keeping them in a warehouse until the couple built their home on Blue Ridge Drive, off Riverside Drive.

The Hulseys used them to build a wall inside the home, including a fireplace and hearth.

She said she remembers her husband not wanting to build the house in brick, thinking they might crumble if exposed over time to harsh weather.

Cooper brick does cover the two-story Riverside Drive home of John and Mary Lou Melvin.

When Anne and Earl Vance built the house in 1949, their friends “said you’re not going to have enough brick to do it, but Mr. Vance was determined to build a house of this brick,” John Melvin said. “He had just enough.”

The Melvins have lived in the house for nearly 35 years.

“Both of us have strong feelings about history and we like preserving it,” Mary Lou said.

Her husband agreed. “We’re proud of our home and of the heritage,” he said.

Over the years, the Cooper Pants tragedy had become another of the many horrific stories from April 6, 1936. Neither it nor the disaster had been remembered in a special way.

That is, until April 6, 2011 — the 75th anniversary.

City officials and residents paused at 8:27 a.m., the moment the storm struck. Also, that day, the city dedicated a marker commemorating the tornado and a walking tour of the storm’s path was held.

But Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds wanted more recognition, seeking a memorial recognizing the Cooper Pants factory.

“Growing up here, I never heard about it other than when my dad talked about standing outside and hearing the women scream,” he said in 2011. “It was a tremendous event, and no one speaks about it or knows how many women really died. I heard 40 to 70 and even up to 125.”

The city moved forward with an application for a marker, which got the Savannah-based Georgia Historical Society’s approval in May. The group wanted the city, however, to find documentation that the fire led to new regulations on building fire codes.

Jessica Tullar, special projects manager with the city, said city staff and Reynolds worked to gather more information.

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.”

Examples of the new construction included the courthouse, Gainesville City Hall and fire station, and the Hall County jail.

The City Council gave its OK to the installation project last week. Councilman Bob Hamrick has suggested a ceremony marking its dedication.

Tullar said she is working with the history group “to finalize the marker text and get it ordered.

“It’s my understanding that it takes about three months once the marker is ordered.”

Reynolds couldn’t be more pleased.

“To move forward with this long-due recognition on the 78th anniversary of this horrific event will be significant,” he said.

Tom McGee, who lives at the Autumn Breeze senior center in Gainesville, remembers seeing the factory’s ruins soon after the tornado.

He was attending school in Lawrenceville at the time it struck, but his brother had responded to the tragedy as a member of the Corps of Cadets at North Georgia College in Dahlonega.

McGee recalled going through Gainesville the next weekend, en route to his brother’s school, passing by the factory.

The story of how the workers — mainly women — had died struck him hard.

“It has always stuck in my mind, when I think of about the tornado,” McGee said. “When we came back (from the college), we went through the (downtown) square and saw all the damage there.”

The storms also spun through the New Holland area. Louise Humphries, 96, lived and worked in the mill village and was at the plant when the tornado struck.

“I was in there before the plant started the machinery,” said Humphries, also an Autumn Breeze resident. “When (the tornado) it, it just blew me around and around those machines.”

Afterward, Humphries left the plant and met up with her father on her street, which was littered with tree limbs.

She later learned that downtown Gainesville had taken the brunt of the storm.

Twisters “swept it just like a broom,” Humphries said. “Gainesville was gone, just swept away.”