Google+ Georgia On My Mind: December 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Villa Rica Explosion

Back in 2006, I posted at History Is Elementary information regarding a lesson I teach at the beginning of the year titled Historians Observe Their Surroundings. Basically I show various images in an attempt to get students to see that every piece of ground has a history.

At one point in the lesson we move as a group down to the playground….not for recess but to make some observations. From that post I wrote:

By this time I have several wiggle worms so we get up and walk down to the recess field. I gather everyone in a group and I tell them that historians never know what they are standing on unless they truly observe their surroundings. We identify together that we are standing on the recess field, and then I ask, “Is that all we’re standing on?”I tell students to follow me and we go to the edge of the playground.

We are standing on the edge of a hill. Down below us we see a flat overgrown area. Sticking out of the hill in various places we see all sorts of debris. Rocks, long pieces of rebar, broken signs, glass, wires, bricks, and assorted hunks of concrete litter the hillside.

We regroup, and I tell the class that the area where they play did not look like it did many years ago. I ask them to come up with some ideas about what happened. Some are silly, some are average, and some are pretty good guesses.

Finally, I tell them the story. Many loads of dirt were hauled in to build up their playground, but before the dirt was dumped the town brought in remnants of a section of town. You see the town where our school is located experienced an explosion, and some of the trash ended up as filler for our playground. Some of the kids nod their heads in agreement and state their grandmother or grandfather had told them about the explosion while other students are amazed.So….before we trudge back to the classroom I summarize and close with, “What did we learn today?” I get several responses.“Things aren’t always as they appear to be.”“You never know what you are looking at.”

“Every piece of ground has a history if you’ll just look at it and listen.”

“Our recess field is a dump.”

Yep, there’s always a true blue smartie in every group.

While working on some things for my church history the other day I came across a 1997 article from the Douglas County Sentinel dated December 5th.

The article states:

It was the worst tragedy to ever hit this small west Georgia town, and for people who recall that fateful day, the memories are just as vivid as ever.

Thursday, December 5, 1957, was a day just like any other in downtown Villa Rica. People were out casting their ballots for municipal elections as they had done in years past. Others were catching up on their Christmas shopping.

And then, suddenly, their lives were changed forever.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a natural gas explosion ripped through the downtown area, killing 12 people and injuring at least 20 others.

According to newspaper accounts of the time, several eye witnesses described the blast as a loud “whoomp,”, that was more like a clap than a bang.

Others said that the town suddenly looked as if it had been hit by an atom bomb.

“I was in kindergarten at the time in Mrs. Nan Cole’s house when we heard the loud explosion,” said Suzanne Watson. “We could see the cloud from the explosion, and Mrs. Cole told us something was burning, to allay our fears. I found out what really happened when I got home from kindergarten.”

Ethyleen Tyson recalled similar memories.

“I was at home about two miles away from town when we heard this loud boom,” Tyson recounted. “We thought it sounded like a bad thunderstorm…the noise vibrated the whole house and shook the windows.”

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 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.

According to newspaper accounts of the time, rescue workers and fire departments from all over the local area and as far away as Atlanta responded to the blast.

The Civil Defense from Cedartown was called in to help maintain order, as was the State Militia. Prisoners from the county jail were even brought in to help.

Volunteers, however, did much of the work of sifting through the rubble until rescuers arrived. Longtime pharmacist James Harrison, the father of Suzanne Watson, was one of them.

Harrison 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 had 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.”

Harrison said that telephoned his wife and daughter to let them know that he was OK, and then went immediately back to the scene to help.

He recalled one woman in particular who was buried under the debris of a building near the corner of Montgomery and Candler.

“There were prisoners drilling the best they could through the concrete and we could hear her crying, “Help me! Help me, I’m burning up!”

Johnny Blair, brother of Ethyleen Tyson, was 29-years-old at the time and on duty with the Carrollton Fire Department when news of the explosion reached the station. Blair went up to Villa Rica to help out with the rescue.

“Oh Lord, it was a terrible mess,” said Blair. “We worked all told about three days and nights doing what we could.”

“We helped move debris as well as helping with the traffic,” Blair continued. “Another thing I’ll say is that you say what you want about convicts, but you’ve got to give it to the convicts who worked the explosion that day. They were lined up in a long row and were passing the debris by hand to try to get to the people who were buried.”

Those who survived the blast recall that nearly everybody who lived in Villa Rica knew someone who was killed in the blast.

“It’s only the Lord’s mercy there weren’t more killed or hurt,” Tyson said.

The following are the persons who 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

The newspaper article goes on to state the above names was supplied through the kindness and hardwork of Mrs. Ethyleen Tyson.

The marker seen pictured with this post and on the web here is located in Villa Rica, Georgia in front of Berry’s Pharmacy on U.S. Route 78 at the intersection with South Chandler Street in downtown Villa Rica.

The marker states:

Around 11:00 a.m. on December 5, 1957, a natural gas leak under Berry’s Pharmacy caused an explosion that destroyed four buildings and damaged several others in Villa Rica’s downtown. The explosion killed twelve and injured twenty. The tragedy highlighted the need for both an organized local emergency response unit and the use of odor in the natural gas supply.

The civil defense unit that resulted became a model for west Georgia. Ensuing litigation placed a considerable financial burden on the city, suppressing economic development for years. In terms of injury and loss of life, the explosion remains the most catastrophic event in Carroll County history…

Update: Someone at the Topix page for Villa Rica….found here...posted a link to old news reel footage concerning the explosion. The video is presented below:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas, 2008!

From my home to yours....Merry Christmas and Seasons Greetings!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

You Know You're From Georgia When...

1. You can properly pronounce Chickamauga, DeKalb, Dahlonega, Smyrna , Buena Vista, Valdosta , Okefenokee, and La Fayette.

And Atlanta is ADD-LANNA not AT-LANT-A.

2. You think people who complain about the heat in their states are sissies.

3. A tornado warning siren is your signal to go out in the yard and look for a funnel cloud.

4.You know that the true value of a parking space is not determined by the distance to the door, but by the availability of shade.

5. Stores don't have bags or shopping carts, they have sacks and buggies.

6. You've seen people wear bib overalls at weddings and funerals.

7. You think everyone from a Yankee-state has an accent.

8. You measure distance in minutes.

9. You go to the lake because you think it is like going to the ocean.

10. You listen to the weather forecast before picking out an outfit.

11. You know cowpies are not made of beef.

12. Someone you know has used a football schedule to plan their wedding date.

13. You know someone who has a belt buckle bigger than your fist.

Many bloggers are participating in Thursday Thirteen today. You can locate them here.

Many thanks to my friend Rosetta….who forwarded the above text to me via email.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Strange Case of George Brown

Governor Henry McDaniel served as Georgia’s top-ranking government official from 1883 to 1886. He’s known for being one of the first professors at one of my alma maters….Mercer University. During the Civil War he earned distinction for taking over his unit, the Georgia 11th Infantry, when all of the officers were killed. Later he entered politics where he served out the remainder of Gov. Alexander Stephen’s term following his death and was then elected in his own right. During his administration, the Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech, was established and the construction on the current state capital building began.

As with most governors, McDaniel was often asked to review the cases of convicted felons for clemency. One particular case told the strange saga of one George Brown, a prisoner in the Dade County Penitentiary.

The 1886 article found in the New York Times states:

(please note the following newspaper article is presented here just as it appeared in the 1886 paper. Some of the language is offensive to us today, but it was commonly printed during the late 19th Century)

During the recent insurrection of the Dade County Penitentiary one of the prisoners named George Brown distinguished himself by his efforts against the mutineers. As soon as the time came for surrender a forge with blacksmith’s tools stood ready to fashion the shackles on the prisoners. As they came out George Brown jumped to the anvil, and seizing the sledge undertook the task of shackling his comrades. As he disposed of one prisoner he would call out, “Bring in another coon.”

Col. Towers recommended the pardon of Brown to the Governor. It was then that an interesting story was developed by Dr. J.A.Gray, who happened to be in the executive office. In 1878. Brown was a guard of a convict camp. A prisoner escaped and was pursued by Brown and the Sheriff. Under the Sheriff’s orders Brown fired and killed the fugitive. For this he was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentences was commuted to life imprisonment.

In 1879, Dr. Gray visited the penitentiary with a legislative committee and being struck by Brown’s appearance secured his confidence and learned that he was under an assumed name; that his father was one of the most prominent citizens of Oswego, N.Y., but he did not wish his family to know of his unfortunate situation.

Dr. Gray, on returning to Atlanta, communicated with Oswego and found that the prisoner’s statement was correct. These papers he then turned over to Dr. Raines, the then principal physician, with the request that he would use them to secure Brown’s pardon. It was not until today that the case was recalled, when Dr. Gray ascertained that Dr. Raines had never taken steps in the matter, that on Raines’ death a couple of years ago, all the letters had been burned by his widow, and that he himself had forgotten the real name of the prisoner who was today set free by the executive clemency of Gov. McDaniel.

Strange Georgia history, huh? This would make a great plot for movie....if it hasn't already.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Georgia Carnival: Edition 50

Welcome to the Georgia Blog Carnival!

The bloggers featured here are all part of the extensive list of bloggers from Georgia I have listed in the right sidebar of this site. Currently the blogroll is a bit incomplete as I am rebuilding it from scratch. If you don’t see your blog, but it was linked to this site previously, please give me a little time to get the code written.

Any Georgia blogger can submit a post to the carnival or a blogger from another state or country can submit a post for inclusion if the topic of the post is Georgia related.

If you own a Georgia blog contact me at the email address in the right sidebar and request an”add” to the blogroll. If you have requested to be added since October please be patient as the site where the blogroll is maintained ( is undergoing some renovations, and I’m building the code myself.

The Georgia Carnival will be moving to a monthly format over the holiday season with the next carnival being posted here at
Georgia on My Mind on Friday, January 9th. Submissions will be due Thursday, January 8th.

If you maintain a Georgia blog and would like to host the carnival at your site e-mail me to set up a date. It’s a great way to put your own personal spin on the carnival.

The last edition of the Georgia carnival can be found
here, and the carnival archives are found here.

Now… on to the highlights of Georgia blogging during the past two weeks.

In the last edition of the Georgia Carnival we saw some of the pictures Shell’s family took at Callaway Gardens. Since I was one the judges I thought I would include the results this time. You can see them at the post ...And the Winners Are at Live the Life.

Satellite TV Guru presents Watch Heroes Season 3 Online - Satellite TV Guru.

Are you always in a panic once December 1st rolls around each year because you haven’t even started thinking about the gift buying you need to do? Felicia, over at Fluffy Flowers has a solution for you with her post how to setup a Christmas closet.

Over at History Is Elementary I advised readers about the ongoing efforts to clean up a World War II battle site in Pacific and remember our dead properly with Beach Red.

….and if you haven’t received your own White House Christmas card yet I have posted an image, so you see what they look like here.

A few weeks ago I paid as much as $4.57 per gallon to put premium gas in my car which “he who must be obeyed” demands I put in my car. Now the price is much lower, and the news is regular will go down to a dollar soon. What’s up with that?!? Paw Paw Bill is wondering as well with his post…Oil Price Mumbo Jumbo.

…and Paw Paw Bill ponders the inevitable rush for presidential pardons in the coming weeks in his post Pardon My Turkey.

Well, that’s it for this edition of the Georgia Carnival. Please support these fine Georgia bloggers by letting them know you have visited them with a comment. Your continued support with your links and shout-outs at your site helps to alert others to what we Georgia bloggers have to offer.

The next edition of the carnival will be found here at
Georgia on My Mind on Friday, January 9th. Posts can be sent to or use the handy submission form. Submissions are due by Thursday, January 8th by 6:00 p.m.

Thanks for your continued support of the Georgia Carnival!
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