In the beginning

Remembering Gainesville’s grand brick courthouse and downtown’s early heyday ...


UF Special Collection

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.

When Mark Barrow arrived in Gainesville in 1953 to attend the University of Florida, he discovered a downtown lined with majestic shade trees setting off a classic red-brick Southern county courthouse.

And then they were gone.

The trees were deemed a traffic engineer’s nightmare. The graceful but decaying courthouse was razed in 1960 and replaced with a utilitarian but charmless administration building.

“I was appalled,” says Barrow, a retired cardiologist and founder of the Matheson Museum. Barrow is co-author of “A Penny for Your Thoughts: An Album of Historic Postcards of Alachua County,” which preserves long-ago images of an almost idyllic old Southern downtown.

Indeed, to peruse Dr. Barrow’s postcard collection is to appreciate what used to be here:

A narrow University Avenue dwarfed by Spanish moss-draped oaks.

An early 20th-century Main Street scene where the few automobiles in evidence are clustered under the shade trees that set off the courthouse square.

Horse-drawn fire wagons in front of Fire Station No. 1, prudently constructed of red brick in 1903, after fires in 1884 and 1886 (with another yet to come in 1938) laid waste to most of the wooden buildings that once dominated the low downtown skyline.

A bustling street scene in which men in straw hats and suits hurry about their business.

Growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s, Jim Stringfellow, a longtime businessman whose family moved to Gainesville from South Carolina in 1856, remembers putting pennies on the railroad tracks that still ran down the center of Main Street, through a downtown bustling with shops, hotels, businesses, restaurants and three movie theaters.

“The Florida Theater was the place we kids wanted to be on Saturday morning,” he recalls. “They had all the cowboy movies, John Wayne and the rest.”

The beginnings

Gainesville was founded in 1853 to be the new seat of Alachua County government. And it’s evolution as a major inland shipping center began when the first tracks were laid down in 1859, as part of David Levy Yulee’s Fernandina-to-Cedar Key Railroad.

But the roots of its downtown district predated the city itself.

“The date is not known when Gainesville was first just a crossroads, with a store or two, a tavern, a blacksmith’s shop and grist mill,” Jess D. Davis wrote in his 1966 history of Gainesville.

The first “downtown” resident was likely a settler named Bod Higginbothem, who migrated from Micanopy to build his cabin not far from where the fire station now stands on South Main Street.

Downtown’s geographical location was determined by James B. Bailey, owner of a 2,000-acre plantation near Sweetwater Branch. Bailey’s house, built in 1853, is the oldest residence still standing in Gainesville, at 1121 NW Sixth Street.

“More than just public good motivated Bailey ...” writes John B. Pickard in his book “Florida’s Eden: An Illustrated History of Alachua County.” In 1854, Bailey “sold sixty three acres from his cotton plantation for the town site. When forty more acres were added to his, the town site became a rough square, bounded on the east by Sweetwater Branch and the north by the present day Fifth Street.”

“An entire block near the courthouse sold for only $190, while outside blocks went for under $15.”

Not that investors could expect a quick return on their money after the new wood frame courthouse was constructed in 1856, followed by a log-constructed jail. (And in a practice that lasted until 1924, public hangings were conducted downtown). Indeed, when a visitor, Major John W. Tench, a Confederate war hero, stepped off the train and set his foot in downtown Gainesville nearly 15 years later in 1870, he was unimpressed with what he saw.

“There were the remains of a plank sidewalk, with one plank off and three on, three off and one on,” he wrote, “continuing thus to the Square where I found an acre of the Sahara Desert with a wooden courthouse.”

That initial poor impression, however, didn’t deter Tench from returning to Gainesville in 1877 to settle down and raise a family. (In fact, his grandson, the late Benjamin M. Tench Jr., was a longtime circuit court judge here who in his way helped with downtown’s revitalization [see story page 54] and his great grandson, Benmont Tench, went on to fame and fortune as the keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.)

It was a far different downtown scene than had greeted another military officer, Capt. J.J. Dickinson, on August 17, 1864, when he arrived with a company of 175 mounted Confederates to engage the 800 Union troops who had moved into Gainesville intent on destroying the railroad. Despite overwhelming odds, Dickinson forced a Union retreat in a two-hour battle that killed 52 Union soldiers and just three of his own men.

Wrote F.W. Buchholz in his “History of Alachua County Florida:” “…many of the Gainesville ladies during the hottest of the fight passed along the southern lines with buckets of water, refusing to listen to their men entreating them to get out of danger … ladies came out to the streets and urged their brothers and fathers and husbands to ‘Charge’…”

A smaller battle had been waged in Gainesville’s downtown just days before, and in his 1966 history, Davis argued that “the tendency of historians to treat the two battles of Gainesville in the Civil War as mere skirmishes ignores the strategic importance of at least one of them.”

The Dickinson victory, he insisted, “was generally credited with saving East and South Florida” from Union conquest.

After the war, downtown Gainesville began to prosper as an inland transportation and trading hub. By the mid-1880s, Pickard writes, it hosted five hotels, including the 200-guest Arlington, “Dutton’s Banking House, Philip Miller’s grocery, Vidal’s drugs and Maggie Tebeau’s boarding school.”

And by 1886 a new red brick courthouse had been built for $50,000. “Ornately decorated with high gables and a central Victorian bell tower, itself capped by a soaring golden eagle, the building also displayed a pair of copper lions crouched above the north and south entrances,” notes Pickard. “This imposing brick structure would dominate the square for the next 70 years.”

Even the Great Depression did not quash downtown’s economic vitality. In 1936, Baird Hardware grossed $800,000, Pickard wrote, and neighboring businesses of the era included Wilson’s Department Store, McCollum’s Drug Store, Piggly Wiggly, McCrory’s 5 & 10, Chitty’s dry goods, Dorsey’s Bakery, Lovet’s Market and Grocery, Cox Furniture and more.

Former County Commissioner Jonathan Wershow’s father opened a downtown law practice in 1964. When he was growing up, Wershow recalls, “You could go to Gresham’s Drug store on University Avenue and buy a chocolate sundae for 21 cents, and Mr. Gresham would sometimes make it for you.”

But among those rose-colored memories are some that are bleaker, and reflective of the age.

“The Woolworth’s (then located at the corner of University and Main) had two drinking fountains, one for whites and one for blacks,” he says. “I always wondered if the water tasted different in the black fountain. So when nobody was looking I snuck a taste. There was no difference. I couldn’t understand it.”

Wershow continues to operate his own downtown law practice, at the corner of Southeast Second Avenue and First Street. And he well remembers the slow deterioration of downtown during the 1960s and ’70s, when competition from the shopping malls — first the Gainesville Shopping Center on North Main, then the Gainesville Mall on Northwest 13th Street and finally the Oaks Mall near I-75 — began to take their toll.

The much-protested closing in 1977 of Kirby-Smith Elementary School on East University Avenue dealt another blow to downtown Gainesville. With the loss of its nearby school, downtown’s historic Duck Pond neighborhood found its longtime appeal to families waning.

In the life and death of public spaces, what transports us is what defines us.

Thus, it was the coming of the railroads that gave birth to downtown Gainesville.

And it was automobile-propelled western expansion that very nearly killed it.

“It was dead,” remembers Wershow.

Or perhaps just in hibernation. Eventually a substantial public investment in downtown infrastructure — a new city hall and public library, a downtown plaza, street-scaping and the like — would plant the seeds for a downtown Gainesville revival.

But that’s another story.

“The Woolworth’s (then located at the corner of University and Main) had two drinking fountains, one for whites and one for blacks,” he says. “I always wondered if the water tasted different in the black fountain. So when nobody was looking I snuck a taste. There was no difference. I couldn’t understand it.”

Wershow continues to operate his own downtown law practice, at the corner of Southeast Second Avenue and First Street. And he well remembers the slow deterioration of downtown during the 1960s and ’70s, when competition from the shopping malls — first the Gainesville Shopping Center on North Main, then the Gainesville Mall on Northwest 13th Street and finally the Oaks Mall near I-75 — began to take their toll.

The much-protested closing in 1977 of Kirby-Smith Elementary School on East University Avenue dealt another blow to downtown Gainesville. With the loss of its nearby school, downtown’s historic Duck Pond neighborhood found its longtime appeal to families waning.

In the life and death of public spaces, what transports us is what defines us.

Thus, it was the coming of the railroads that gave birth to downtown Gainesville.

And it was automobile-propelled western expansion that very nearly killed it.

“It was dead,” remembers Wershow.

Or perhaps just in hibernation. Eventually a substantial public investment in downtown infrastructure — a new city hall and public library, a downtown plaza, street-scaping and the like — would plant the seeds for a downtown Gainesville revival.

But that’s another story.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top

Find Us on Facebook