Shade-tree tiffs nothing new on Church Street
by Joe Kirby
September 23, 2012 12:37 AM | 1371 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Marietta is thinking of narrowing sun-baked Church Street in downtown Marietta so that trees can be planted in the sidewalk — which is more than a little bit ironic, considering that one of the longest-running court cases in the city’s history involved efforts by the city to remove a quartet of shade trees so that Church could be widened.

Marietta during the 1930s was a stop on the most direct route between Chicago and Florida, “The Dixie Highway,” following what’s known today as Old U.S. 41. It was a mostly two-lane road that went through the downtowns of every city in its path, including Marietta. Its route through Marietta followed Church Street to the Square, then continued south on Atlanta Street.

The concrete-paved road was only two lanes wide as it headed south on Church Street, which in that era was still a two-way street and only 15 feet wide. The city planned to widen it in the 1920s but ran headlong into an insurmountable obstacle known as J.E. Mozley, who lived at the road’s intersection with Kennesaw Avenue. His home now is the law offices of Rogers & Watkins.

Mozley had ridden with bushwhackers during the Civil War, which later led his fellow lawyers in the old Cobb Courthouse to give him the moniker of “General Mozley.” He practiced law here for 70 years and served from 1904-05 as mayor. Thanks to his habit of buying defaulted properties on the steps of the Courthouse, he was one of the county’s biggest landholders by the 1920s. So when the council decided to widen Church, Mozley was a force to be reckoned with.

He first signed a petition in favor of widening the street to 24 feet — but only with the stipulation that his four century-old oaks in front of his house not be disturbed.

Then another petition surfaced signed by residents further up the street asking it be widened to 30 feet, a petition the city preferred. Mozley claimed the first he’d heard of the second petition was the day in 1921 when city workers axed two of his trees while he was away. His wife quickly filed suit to enjoin the city from continuing and Superior Court Judge D.W. Blair granted an injunction. It’s easy to see why the city was adamant that the trees had to go. They not only constituted a safety hazard but a traffic bottleneck, jutting six feet into the right of way.

The ensuing court battle dragged on till 1938 with Mozley at one point appealing successfully to the state Supreme Court. He later argued that Judge Hawkins should be removed from the case because one of his relatives lived on Church Street and had signed the widening petition. A Cobb jury decided in Mozley’s favor.

Presiding Judge Claude Pittman of Cartersville noted that, “The city’s only claim (for ownership) of the trees was that city employees had raked the leaves from under them. But it would take a lot of raking to rake away Mr. Mozley’s title.”

Mozley told Pittman afterward that the birds sang more sweetly and the squirrels frolicked more gaily because even they felt their homes were safe at last.

Yes, the flora and fauna were safe, but drivers? Not so much.

It’s incredible that such a safety hazard was allowed to endure along a busy street, and old editions of the Marietta Journal bear proof of more than one case in which vehicles collided with the trees. But endure they did, all the way up to Mozley’s death at age 94 in 1942.

Church Street is four lanes wide at that point today, with traffic volume unimaginable to those who lived here 80 years ago.

And Mozley’s trees? They were chopped down by city workers a week after he died.

Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Lockheed Plant.”
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