Gainesville is looking to move forward on the long-awaited placement of a historical marker at the site of the former Cooper Pants Factory.
The factory, once located at the intersection of Broad and Maple streets, burned down in the April 6, 1936, tornado that devastated much of the city.
The tornado is still one of the deadliest in U.S. history, with an estimated 203 people killed when it destroyed much of the downtown area. Accounts of the factory fire say the tornado collapsed the factory, sparking the fire that trapped and killed between 40 and 125 people, mostly young women.
Jessica Tullar, special projects manager for the city, said last week that officials plan to present a resolution to City Council on April 1 describing the Georgia Historical Society marker program and the significance of the Cooper Pants Factory.
The resolution also will break down project costs, with $2,500 from the society and $2,500 from the city. The marker’s upkeep, including replacement as needed, would be the city’s responsibility, Tullar said.
“To move forward with this long-due recognition on the 78th anniversary of this horrific event will be significant,” said Garland Reynolds, a Hall County architect who has helped spearhead the effort.
“I look on this as a positive step that placed Gainesville back then ahead of most other cities lying in a traditional path for tornadoes and for which the city itself should at last be recognized.”
The Savannah-based historical group’s Marker Review Committee approved the city’s application in May, but the society wanted the city to find documentation that the fire led to new regulations on building fire codes.
“Are there statistics about the extent of the devastation of the fire itself in comparison to other tragedies?” asked Maggie Brewer, the society’s membership and outreach coordinator, in a Sept. 9 letter to Tullar.
“Are there specific ways in which the Cooper fire was like New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire as far as drawing larger attention (outside of Gainesville) to fire safety?”
Tullar said city staff and Reynolds “have been working to gather information to address the (society’s) request for more details.”
“That search for information has been somewhat difficult and has been interrupted on several occasions by other project deadlines,” she said.
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.
“Newer fire and building codes have continued, expanding these regulations with additional requirements such as occupancy space limits and sprinkler systems,” Reynolds said.
The story of the fire was passed down through Gainesville families, and some current residents remember hearing about it as children.
Members of the DeLong family still remember the fire because their great-uncle Russell DeLong lost his wife and two daughters.
In a previous interview, Wendy Brock said DeLong never recovered his wife’s remains. Her great-uncle Russell had found his wife, Hattie, but when he went back for her body, it was gone, Brock said.
“It was just family history that was told and was retold,” Brock said. “He was a bitter man. What remained of his life was ruined.”