Dade County History: What about Dr. Gardner?

My mother, Mary Verenice Cooper, was born July 8, 1932, near Valley Head, Ala. She was brought into this world by Dr. Joseph Leonard Gardner (left), who lived at what was then called Sulphur Springs, Georgia, in Dade County and who practiced medicine in Dade County and north Alabama. Then my mother, by then Verenice Hawkins, was a witness to the end of Dr. Gardner’s life in a tragic accident on August 28, 1955.

After I wrote the articles about Dr. Spencer Middleton, I had some calls and several people mentioned Dr. Gardner, who also practiced medicine in Dade County. Dr. Gardner died the year I was born, so I will have to depend on other sources to tell his story. Both of my parents were familiar with him, so I got most of my information from Mama and from the article Daddy wrote for the Dade County History Book, “Who Was Here When I Got Here?” I also found a few details on

Dr. Joseph Leonard Gardner was born on February 18, 1889, to Thomas B. Gardner and his wife, Huldah Jane Slaton. The Gardner family was a large one, living on a farm in Marshall County, Ala. In 1900 and 1910, Gardner was living with his parents and working on the farm. He married Gladys G. Barksdale on January 24, 1914, in DeKalb County, Ala., and by 1920 he had become a doctor and moved to Dade County. I could find nothing about where he went to medical school, but in 1920, he was a physician living at Cole City. Sometime after that, he moved to Sulphur Springs, Ga., and lived there until his death. Here is what my father, Brody Hawkins, remembered about Dr. Gardner:

“When I got here, we had three doctors in the community, Dr. Middleton, Dr. Gardner and Dr. Bunk Payne. We used Dr. Middleton. Middleton and Gardner were jealous and would run most doctors out. They let Payne stay because he treated venereal diseases. He doctored them with mercury compounds. The treatment was almost as bad as the disease, but that was all there was to treat it with. Also, Payne would doctor our livestock. Back then most doctors did that.

“At that time, over half the people couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the doctors. Dr. Middleton said he never sent a bill. They paid if they could. Dr. Gardner, however, would go to see people about paying. He would say, “Hey, fella, could you help me a little on your bill?” If they said no, he would ask them about giving him a calf or a hog or something. He once took ten gallons of sorghum for a baby case. Dr. Gardner delivered six babies for one family I knew and they never paid him a penny.

“I remember going to get Dr. Gardner at two in the morning to deliver Buddy Howell’s baby. Doc lived in the house on Cloverdale Road where the Coopers live now. He told me to put my mule in the barn and I rode with him in his car. I remember going to the post office and seeing Doc Gardner pulling someone’s teeth while they were sitting on the fender of his car. Doc would come by the post office and get his mail and he would throw the junk mail in the old pot-bellied stove, unopened. At this time there was a post office at Sulphur Springs, Ga., in Ella Forester’s store.

“Dr. Gardner got killed when a train hit his car at the railroad crossing just below our house. He lived alone and they had a hard time finding his relatives. When a committee went in to inventory his property, they found $57,000 in the house behind the piano.”

So Daddy’s family used Dr. Middleton, but Mama’s family saw Dr. Gardner. When Cloverdale Road goes into Alabama, it is called Hawkins Road, and my mother grew up on a farm on Hawkins Road, overlooking the Beene Cemetery, just before that road goes into Highway 11 at the sharp curve north of Hammondville. Of course, Mama doesn’t remember her birth, but she was a small baby. Dr. Gardner had no scales to weigh her, but he estimated she weighed three-and-a-half to four pounds. Some babies that small wouldn’t have made it, but she was born in the summer and she was my Granny’s fourth baby, so experience paid off. Mama said Dr. Gardner charged $10 for her delivery.

Mama said that they just did not go to the doctor much, but she remembers a few visits from Dr. Gardner. She said that he was a heavy man and when they knew he was coming to the house, they always found the sturdiest chair for him. He would always let the kids watch and she remembered watching him sew up her brother’s arm when she was 12. Back then, doctors made a lot of house calls. One lady told her that when her brother had pneumonia, Dr. Gardner stayed at their house for two or three days until the crisis passed.

One of her most vivid memories was breaking her arm when she was 6 years old. Dr. Gardner came to set it. At that time communities would go together and put in a local phone system. They couldn’t call Chattanooga or any long distance, but they could call neighbors and the doctor. Part of the time her family had a phone, but not always.

When she broke her arm, her mother sent her 4-year-old sister to the field to tell her daddy. He sent one of her older brothers to Wells’ house to call the doctor while Granddaddy went to the house to check on Mama. She said she kept her eyes closed the whole time Dr. Gardner was working on her arm and no one could figure out why. She later confided in her daddy that she did that to keep from crying. Her older brothers had convinced her that only babies cried and she was determined not to cry and that’s how she kept from crying.

In 1955, the year he died, Dr. Gardner was still practicing and still delivering babies, although many were being born in the hospital by then. I was born in January of that year at Erlanger Hospital, but Mama remembers getting Dr. Gardner to check her blood pressure once when she was pregnant. He was their neighbor at the time. They did not live where Mama lives now but farther south on Cloverdale Road, just past Dr. Gardner’s house. He delivered my cousin Glenn in 1953 and my cousin Martha who was born in March of 1955.

Like Dr. Middleton, Dr. Gardner invested in real estate, and he owned a farm on Lookout Mountain. On Sunday, August 28, Dr. Gardner had been to his farm on Lookout Mountain and came back with his car loaded with tomatoes. He came down the Sulphur Springs Gap Road. Mama and Daddy were sitting on the porch (probably enjoying and admiring their beautiful girl child) when they saw him pass by. Just a few minutes later they heard a loud crash, as Dr. Gardner pulled onto the railroad at the crossing near Gertrude Hawkins’s house.

No one knows why he didn’t hear or see the train, but evidently he did not. It was thought he was going to share some of his produce with friends.

As soon as they heard the crash, my parents rushed down to the site of the accident. They were naturally curious to know what had happened and since my mother was a nurse, she thought she should see if there was anything she could do to render aid.

Some of the Hawkins family was already there, but it was apparent that there was nothing anyone could do for Dr. Gardner. Mama remembered that there were tomatoes everywhere.

At the time, Sherman Moore was the coroner in Dade County. They stayed until he came and pronounced Dr. Gardner dead. He then took the body away, as he also owned the local funeral home.

Dr. Joseph L. Gardner was laid to rest in the Lathamville Baptist Church Cemetery on August 30, 1955. The service was conducted by Rev. T.C. Nelson. His wife, Mrs. Gladys Gardner, had died some 12 years earlier. The Gardners had no children.

Editor's Note: Linda Wilson published a column in The Dade Planet last week seeking relatives of Deputy John Parrish, who died in a Prohibition-era ambush, to receive a posthumous honor in his name. She reported on Friday she had received a response from a lady in Walker County who had read the article and was writing to say her husband is a descendant of John Parrish's sister. If you'd like to respond to Linda, you may do so at

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