Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Villa Rica Explosion

Every teacher worthy of carrying a grade book realizes lesson plans cannot be written in stone...not if we truly want to meet our students where they are and truly design a prescribed course of study to help students reach various goals. Of course, teachers do have lesson plans they use over and over. I certainly did, but I never taught them the same way twice. They were always tweaked and tailored to fit the needs of each new group of students I encountered.

One lesson that I wrote while I was in the classroom stayed the same year-to-year with little change. It was a lesson I used during the first week of school when I was attempting to introduce my fourth graders to their first encounter with a full-range American History course that would span the entire year. The lesson was my attempt to show students how history is all around us if we begin to observe our surroundings very closely.

Villa Rica Elementary School...the school where I spent several years with some pretty fantastic fourth and fifth separated into four different buildings that form a large square. In the center is a large grassy area with a great shade tree. During the first week of school in August I would gather up my students, and we would have class in the grassy area underneath the tree.

Once everyone had settled in I would ask students to look around and notice where they were. I asked them to look at the tree, the grass, and the spots where there wasn't any grass. I would ask, "Is the ground completely flat, or do you notice it rising and falling in certain areas?"

I told students their job description in my class would be to act as historians, as they would need to be aware of the lay of the land. They would need to be able to make observations for anything that could be used as a frame of reference or a landmark of sorts when exploring a historical site.

Anything can be a clue regarding how the land was once used or who lived there.

I show students a picture of a pile of rocks and ask, "What could this be trying to tell us?"

I get all sorts of crazy answers. I also get a few plausible ones including the fact that the rocks could be covering a grave. We discuss all of the answers, and then I would tell students, "Sometimes it just takes a different viewpoint to really identify something."

I show them a second picture of the same pile of rocks except this time the rocks are seen from the air.

Generally, at this point I would hear several "Ohs" and "Ahs", and I would tell students the image they were looking at is Georgia's Rock Eagle, of course. Rock Eagle is a Native American rock formation located just north of Eatonton, Georgia.

The next picture I showed students is this deep gully. I would pass the picture around and allow students to observe it up close. We discussed possible causes for the gully...erosion, earthquake, Mother Nature, God....

As I showed students the next image I would ask, "How about man? Could this gully be caused by hundreds of wagons over a fifty year period?"

The gully I picture above is actually part of the Natchez Trace running between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. Thousands of settlers traveled the Trace making their way to new lands.

Finally, I show students a picture of a trench. Generally, when I asked students how the trench was formed they reacted predictably and gave me all sorts of reasons. Most thought it was a picture of the Grand Canyon.

We discussed the possible causes at length, and then I showed them the last image.

Of course, sometimes trenches are man-made. The first trench image hints it was man-made because you see rocks and wood placed on the sides of the trench. I usually followed this with a very quick explanation regarding trench warfare that took place during World War I.

I ended our discussion by telling students history is everywhere around them if they would take the time to examine, to wonder, and to question what they see.

I guess the same thing could be said of adults as well, right?

A pile of rocks could be just that, but if you know a little history you might guess the pile of rocks might be a burial spot, if you just happen to know Native Americans in my area were doing that hundreds of years ago. If I knew a little history I might realize a pile of rocks could be part of a much larger design that could be seen from the air.

It's at this point of the lesson I could predict several wiggle worms, so I would change our location. We would walk down to the recess field where I would gather everyone in a group and impress upon students that historians never know what they are standing on unless they truly observe their surroundings.

I would have students verify we were standing on the recess field before asking, "Is that all we are standing on?"

Then I would remind them that sometimes you have to change your viewpoint. I take students to the edge of the playground and down some steps towards an area that had been set up as our outdoor classroom for nature walks and science experiments. From this vantage point it was very easy to see the playground wasn't what it seemed.

From the outdoor classroom the recess field was hidden at the top of a very large hill. Sticking out of the side of the hill in various places were all sorts of debris. Rocks, long pieces of rebar, broken signs, glass, wires, bricks, and assorted hunks of concrete littered the hillside.

I would point out the debris and ask students to come up with ideas about what happened.

Finally, I would tell them the story...Many loads of dirt were hauled in to build up the playground at Villa Rica Elementary, but before the dirt was dumped the town of Villa Rica brought in remnants of a section of town. Much of the debris came from the Villa Rica Explosion.  Usually, I would have a student or two who would nod their heads and confirm they had heard about the tragedy from their grandparents or parents.

Generally, most students had not heard about it, and were amazed.

The fateful day was Thursday, December 5, 1957. People were going about their normal business on a weekday...going to the store, keeping appointments, seeing to some early Christmas shopping. Some folks were simply out to cast their ballot in municipal elections going on at the time, but shortly after 11 a.m., a natural gas explosion took the lives of 12 people and injured at least 20 others...changing the lives of so many in an instant.

In 1997, the 40th anniversary of the explosion, the Douglas Sentinel published an article recounting that fateful day. Many folks remembered the sound of the explosion...a loud whoomp, that was more like a clap than a bang...and others said that the town suddenly looked as if it had been hit by an atom bomb.

Ethyleen Tyson said that an announcer came on WSB-Radio shortly after the noise and reported that a bad explosion had occurred in Villa Rica. Authorities asked that people stay away from downtown since only emergency vehicles were being allowed into the area and a search was under way for bodies.

...Eyewitnesses who were downtown when the blast occurred told reporters who swarmed the area from as far away as Atlanta, that the air was filled with clothing, papers, wood, bricks, and other falling debris.

Buildings several hundred yards away were damaged. Four cars were completely smashed. Fortunately, rescuers found them to be empty.

Newspaper accounts from the day reported that Berry's Pharmacy was believed to have been ground zero for the blast. For several days prior to the explosion, employees at several downtown buildings had complained of smelling gas, especially at the drugstore.

Ralph Fuller is one of the few who can claim he was inside the drugstore that morning and lived to tell the tale. "I was in the drugstore, and I was sitting with a girl in the back having something to eat," the Villa Rica barber remembered.

"We were sitting by the jukebox, and I thought the jukebox had blown up. I thought I would smother once I realized what had happened, what with all the debris on top of me," he continued. Fuller received severe burns in the blast and was hospitalized. Although Fuller said that he does not remember how long he had to stay in the hospital, he did remember the reaction of family members who visited him there. "My own sister didn't recognize me from the burns I had," said Fuller.

James Harrison, [a longtime pharmacist] was downtown when the blast occurred. He had been out making house calls with a doctor friend, and had returned to town just before 11 a.m. His friend dropped him off in front of Berry's Pharmacy, and Harrison had started inside to have a soft drink and relax. "As I opened the door and began to walk inside, I remembered that it was Election Day, so I decided to go vote...Just as I reached it, the explosion took place."

The following persons perished in the December 5, 1957 natural gas blast in downtown Villa Rica:

Mrs. Ann Pope Smith, age 23
Mrs. Margaret Berry
Bobby Roberts, age 13
Miss Carolyn Davis, age 22
Oscar Hixon, age 34
O.T. Dyer, age 60
Johnny Dyer, age 30
Rob Broom, age 54
Dr. Jack Burnham, a dentist
Kenneth Hendrix
Carl Vinter
Rozella Johnson

Many of those listed above are included at this site.

In 2010, author Elaine Bailey published a book titled Explosion in Villa Rica in an effort to make sure the history regarding the tragedy would not be forgotten.

Mrs. Bailey recounts in her book how members of Douglasville's National Guard were among the first rescuers on the scene. In an interview with the Times Georgian Mrs. Bailey recalls, "One of my most interesting interviews was with an 85-year-old man, who was head of the National Guard in Douglasville at the time. He was on the scene 30 minutes after the explosion and stayed for three days. After the story hit the news, National Guardsmen put on their uniforms and took off for Villa Rica."

Bailey further advised the guardsmen provided security to prevent looters from stealing from the damaged stores, including a jewelry store whose merchandise was scattered al over the street. She said, "Many years later, people were bringing back jewelry, because they felt guilty about taking it."

While downtown Villa Rica is actually in Carroll County, the explosion remains one of the most catastrophic events in area history in terms of injury and loss of life.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Library for Douglasville

A little blurb in an issue of The Sentinel dated 1913 states, “The ladies of Lithia Springs are eternally grateful to the Douglasville Boosters [a group of Douglasville businessmen] for the nice donation of $25 to build a chimney to their beloved Log Cabin Library which was in danger of being left in the cold, as Lithia Springs is building a new school house and now feeling mighty poor.  Some of these days they will return the favor when Douglasville and her boosters turn their attention to such institutions in their town.”

Unfortunately, the ladies of Lithia Springs had to wait a long time to pay their debt because the public library in Douglasville didn’t open its doors until 1950.

From 1888 on people in Douglasville had access to the library at Douglasville College, but once the school closed in 1914 the city was without a lending library for many years.

In her history of Douglas County, Fannie May Davis points to J.R. Hutcheson, an attorney and Superior Court judge as the person who began a campaign to educate others on the need for a public library. 

It took a few years for Hutchinson’s opinions to take hold.  The Douglasville Boosters were busy building railroads, mills, hotels, banks and other businesses.   Folks knew it would be fantastic to have a lending library, but other needs kept taking precedence, and then the Great Depression hit followed by World War II.    According to Mrs. Davis it was 1949 before “various individuals and civic organizations [supported] the need for a public library.”  

Mrs. Davis advises, “The auspicious years following World War II brought on a new era with a wave of technology which included electric lines running to our Georgia farms, television in every household; and hundreds of other inventions for man’s benefit and enjoyment, unheard of in the past.   New ideas abounded, even the map of the world had changed in few years.  Public libraries were adding new materials in every category of their collection; technical equipment had found its way into library service with the promise of much yet to come.   Douglas County could wait no longer.  The time of mere talk and wishful thinking was past.”

A town hall meeting was organized.   Robert Griggs used his column in the The Sentinel to discuss the amount of state and federal funds the city was losing each year because citizens didn’t have a public library they could access nearby. 

Credit is given to the Douglas County Business and Professional Women’s Club for setting money aside specifically for the purpose to begin a public library.   A library consultant with the Georgia State Board of Education spoke at a meeting for the group and advised there were state grants.  She encouraged  county officials to make an immediate application.  Early library grants provided as much as $700 for books and a one-time grant for the establishment of a library for $300.

A library board was finally set up with Robert Griggs as the chairman with Hugh Webb, Lottie Banks, and Minnie Kate James as members.   Ms. James was also appointed as the treasurer, and she remained in that position until her death in 1969.

This first effort included raising matching funds to qualify for a state grant for $1,000.   At this point the majority of citizens were on board, and they received unanimous response from civic and religious organizations as well as other county and municipal boards.

Ruth Warren accepted the position of librarian and in June, 1950 books and magazines were being ordered to fill the shelves.

The next item on the agenda was a location for the library.  Mr. W.Y. White owned a building at the corner of Bowden and Broad Streets….now referred to as the Dennis Connally building.   He offered the second floor of his building rent free.   It was a deal too good to pass up.

During the summer volunteers worked on building shelves and painting the space. 

This is where Douglas County citizen Margaret (Rowe) McMichen, wife of county inspector Zollie McMichen figures into the story.  Margaret’s grandson Blake McMichen and his wife Donna advise me that Margaret (known to her friends as Mick) was an avid reader, quilter, and mother to five busy kids.
Fannie Mae Davis relates, “It was a happy day for Margaret [(Rowe) McMichen] when, in 1950, she read in the The Sentinel that a move was underway to establish a public library in Douglasville.  Margaret was one of the first patrons.  No one enjoyed the library more than she.

On observing the small collection of books in the new library, Margaret selected over 100 books from her own quite extensive home library and donated them to Douglas County Library.  Her gift of books was not all.  She[arrived at the library] one day with a beautiful hand-embroidered, outdoor scene, appropriate for a wall decoration.  That beautiful piece of art has adorned a wall in the local library for over 40 years.  Artists have been known to sketch the scene and many viewers stand before it in admiration."

I’ve walked by the embroidered piece often and have admired it through the years.   Here is Mick’s creation:

Margaret (Rowe) McMichen's embroidery she donated to the Douglas County Public Library 
Fannie Mae Davis continues, “Margaret died in early 1973.  Soon after their mother’s death, her children, Bessie M. Porter, Janet L. Umphrey, James, Jerry, and David McMichen, made a memorial gift of money to the Douglas County Public Library, with a request that it be used for books.  A fine set of encyclopedias was purchased for the library in loving memory of Margaret.”

The library formally opened on September 6, 1950 which 2,000 books on the shelves.  Over one hundred patrons registered for a library card that first day with the honor of first patron going to fourteen-year-old Barbara Rainwater.

By 1956, a little over eight thousand books had been checked out.

It wasn’t long before Edith Foster with the West Georgia Regional Library met with the library board regarding a merger with Douglas.   The regional library included libraries in Carroll, Heard, and Haralson Counties, and a merger would include according to Mrs. Davis “a much larger and more varied group of materials” for Douglas citizens.   Services would also include a book mobile which would distribute needed books to each public school.    

There is always a catch, though, right?  

In order to be part of the regional group $3,000 would need to be raised towards the bookmobile and $1,200 would have to be budgeted annually towards it. Thankfully the Douglas County Board of Education saw the wisdom in the merger and voted to participate.   Douglas Grammar and Douglas County High jointly held a Halloween Carnival and raised $1,000.  

A new City Hall was completed in January, 1953 at the corner of Church and Bowden Streets.  One wing of the new building was set aside for the library.  Fannie May Davis advised this was about the same time the Douglas County Board of Commissioners took over the support of the library and the Board of Education continued to support the bookmobile. 

Taken the day the library opened.  It was housed in the new City Hall built at the corner of  Church and Bowden
There was another move in 1958 when what we consider today to be the “old” courthouse was built in the middle of town.

Fannie Mae Davis took over as head librarian in 1961, and a couple of years later along with R.L.Smith, chairman of the Douglas County Commissioners of Roads and Revenues, applied to the Federal government through the Library Services and Construction Act for funds to build a new building.  It was a combined venture using city, county, state and federal funds.

The result was a building at the corner of Bowden and Spring Street that was opened in August, 1967.  Unfortunately, due to the library’s popularity the space was inadequate almost from the very day it opened.  Today this location houses The Sentinel offices….you can still still see the book deposit slot on the front of the building if you know where to look.

The Douglas County Public Library was once located in this building 

You can still see the book deposit slot if you look hard enough!
Mrs. Davis advises the Bowden/Spring location was designed by Sheetz and Bradfield Architects of Atlanta and built by Paige Brothers Construction Company of Dallas, Georgia.  The Town and Country  Garden Club provided landscaping.

Ruth Warren returned as head librarian in 1981 and oversaw the building of the main library’s current location on Selman Drive in 1985. 

The website for the Douglas County Public Library on Selman Drive can be located here, and you can access their online catalog here.   Other branches include Lithia Springs and the brand new Dog River Branch.

Thank you so much for stopping by.....please share this link with your friends via e-mail and Facebook!     A full column like this appears every Monday with an update of some sort on Wednesdays....

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Knickerbocker Theater Disaster: The Douglasville Connection

No, this isn’t Douglasville.

This video is from the Knickerbocker Theater disaster from 1922.  The theater was located in Washington D.C.

The video is silent…’s hand cranked footage, but it’s still interesting to see, isn’t it?
The date was January 28, 1922, and just after 9:00 p.m. the theater was packed with folks trying to forget the blizzard outside that had dumped several feet of snow on the city over a two day period.

Unfortunately, snow had accumulated on the flat roof of the theater and the structure gave way and caved in under the weight.

98 people were killed and 133 were injured…..  

Carolyn Upshaw was sixteen at the time and had been watching Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford….the movie showing that night.    Ms. Upshaw was the niece of Congressman William D. Upshaw I’ve written about before.

Newspaper accounts mention the Congressman’s niece having survived at first, but her leg had to be amputated.  Sadly, she later passed due to her injuries.   Carolyn’s father was Lucius Upshaw, a former mayor of Douglasville. 

Carolyn’s body laid to rest here at Douglasville City Cemetery next to her father who had passed the year before.     The quotation on Carolyn’s grave says, “The nation’s heroine, beautiful in life, beautiful in death, beautiful in eternity.”

Yes, I realize it’s Wednesday….and yes, I plan to maintain my regular schedule of a new full article on Mondays.   However, I have decided to begin posting a little here and there through the week as well.  One way you can make sure you don’t miss anything is to “like” the Facebook page.   Just enter “Every Now and Then” in your Facebook search box and you should find me.   I’ll be posting various pictures on the Facebook page soon.    Also you can sign up for update notices that will be sent to you e-mail.   Look over on left-hand side of this site.  You will see a heading that says, “Follow by Email”.   Just enter your address there and follow the prompts.

Thanks for sharing my links with your friends on Facebook and through your own e-mail efforts!
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