Centennial Column

Centennial Column
Back to 1908

By Johnny Vardeman

Hall County was quite a different place a century ago when what was then called the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce organized.

Hall County’s population had just topped 25,000 in 1908, and Gainesville had inched above 5,000. R.D. Mitchell was mayor, and one of the major projects in the community was tiling the sidewalks of Green Street and along Main Street to the Southern Railway depot. The city also was working on paving streets around the downtown square and those leading off it with vitrified brick. And leaders were talking about building a reservoir.

Five years earlier, a tornado devastated the south side of town, including the Gainesville cotton mill, and killed more than 100. The town had become quite a cotton center, wagons loaded with bales of cotton crowding the streets during harvest.

The new Downey Hospital and the city’s first “skyscraper,” the five-story Jackson Building, were on the drawing boards.

The city government’s assets included eight mules, and the council had just barred pool tables in town. Street cars ran to Brenau College, Chattahoochee Park at the end of Riverside Drive, the railroad depot and New Holland.

Around Hall County, the big news was a bumper peach crop especially around Klondike. Alas, some of those peaches never made it to market as the bell train headed to northern cities dumped a large load in a wreck near White Sulphur.

The railroad had come to Gainesville several decades earlier, and the city was getting noticed. It had long ago established itself as a health resort with its many mineral springs. The automobile was making trips to the mountains easier, although roads were still rough and mostly unpaved. Tourists heading for the hills either by train or car had to come through Gainesville. Several hotels flourished.

What would become Georgia Power Company began to send electricity over its lines from its Gainesville hydroelectric plant, the first in the state. Two large textile mills had added hundreds of jobs to the mostly rural, mostly agricultural county.

The state Baptists, newspaper publishers, farm leaders, postmasters and North Georgia Methodists picked the little town for their annual conventions. All of this activity was happening without any coordinating organization or promotion and led to formation of a chamber of commerce.

The chamber is said to have organized in 1908, but it wobbled weakly those first few years until local leaders really got serious and reorganized in 1911.

Mayor Mitchell called a meeting May 6, 1911, of the entire community to hear a presentation about a state chamber of commerce. “At this meeting … all realized the importance of the great need for a local chamber of commerce and decided to go to work to this end,” the minutes of that meeting read. “A motion was made that the old chamber of commerce be reorganized … with the election of H.H. Dean as president, W.G. Mealor vice president.” The motion passed, of course, and the new chamber never looked back.

The chamber, renamed the Gainesville-Hall County Chamber of Commerce and now the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, has evolved from representing the interests of mostly downtown merchants to one promoting business, industry and tourism throughout the county and region.

It has played a part in many of the milestones in the county’s history, including the landing of Chicopee Manufacturing Corp. in the 1920s, rebuilding the town in the 1930s after a tornado, the poultry industry boom that began after World War II, the formation of Lake Lanier in the 1950s, development of industrial parks, promoting Lake Lanier Islands and a four-lane connector to Interstate 85 in the 1960s and ’70s, the location of such industry giants as Wrigley’s Inc. and Kubota, and supporting a successful pursuit of a piece of the 1996 Olympic Games.

The reorganized fledgling chamber of commerce in 1911 had to reduce dues from $6 to $3 a year to attract more members, which numbered fewer than 20. It had no permanent office of its own and no staff, only a corps of willing volunteers trying to make a good place to live better.

Today’s Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce has 2,900 members, a staff of 11 and a paid-for modern headquarters in a prime central location. It estimates county population at 200,000.

While pausing to look back at a productive first 100 years, the chamber already is embarked on a course for the future through its Vision 2030 process that pursues specific goals as determined by the community itself.

More history is in the making.

NOTE: Johnny Vardeman is a former editor of the Gainesville Times. As part of this year’s Centennial Celebration, Business Link will feature a series of historical columns by Johnny Vardeman.