Like the roots of a mighty water oak, the men responsible for Atlanta Memorial Park are connected in myriad ways. Many of them go back to Buckhead’s early history.
And like those roots, their stories are hidden below the surface, but right under our collective noses.
There is the U.S senator, newspaper owner and Georgia governor, who served on the Atlanta Board of Education. There is the Atlanta Public Schools superintendent, whose name adorns the middle school just up Northside Drive. There is the son of the man who served valiantly at the Battle of Peachtree Creek and earned distinction as a journalist.
Coming behind these men were countless schoolchildren celebrating the state’s founding.
The area surrounding the 199-acre park drew natives well before there was an Atlanta or a Buckhead. The Muskogee village of Standing Peachtree was relatively close. With Peachtree Creek running through it, the area attracted whitetail deer and, consequently, hunters. The land belonged to the Muskogee people.
The 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs ceded 4.3 million acres, including what is today Buckhead, to the state. By that time, thanks to the introduction of guns, the whitetail population had been hunted nearly to extinction. Without the deer, the Muskogee considered the land worthless.
The state divided the land into lots of 202.5 acres, distributing them through a lottery. Clark Howell Sr. was one of those early pioneer settlers. In 1852, he established a grist mill and a sash-sawmill on the creek bank in a low-lying area about 1,000 yards from the road that today bears his name, Howell Mill Road.
After the Muskogee, he is our first connection to the park. But first I have to tell you about his son, Evan Howell.
The Civil War roared through Buckhead on July 20, 1864. That long day saw a battle along Peachtree Creek through present-day Memorial Park. The Battle of Peachtree Creek raged for two hours and included more than 40,000 men.
Evan Howell was one of them. Near his family’s mills, he fought courageously. His battery silenced the Union artillery during the battle. Union troops shot his horse out from underneath him.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clark Howell was Evan Howell’s son, and Clark Sr.’s grandson. In 1929, along with Albert Howell, J.W. Bedell and Hoke Smith, the younger Clark Howell donated the land for the park — which had been home to the mills — to the city of Atlanta.
Hoke Smith is an interesting fellow as well. While the Howell family owned the Atlanta Constitution, Smith owned the Atlanta Journal. He served as the secretary of the interior under President Grover Cleveland, was the governor of Georgia from 1907 to 1911, and then served in the U.S. Senate from 1911 to 1920. He also served on the Atlanta school board.
Superintendent Willis Sutton, the man for whom Sutton Middle School is named, came up with an idea for the park. He wanted Atlanta schoolchildren to plant trees along the banks of the creek to celebrate the bicentennial of the Georgia colony’s founding in 1933.
2,000 students participated in the dedication of Bicentennial Memorial Forest, which included plays and presentations. Many of the trees in the park can be traced back to that forest.
Atlanta eventually forgot about the forest, but the “memorial” part stuck. Bobby Jones Golf Course opened before the dedication in 1932. The Bitsy Grant Tennis Center dates back to 1952.
With the redone golf course, new courts at the tennis center and the well-used BeltLine passing through, the park is experiencing a bit of a renaissance.
It has always been a beloved park, but it lacked a cohesive plan. It is finally rounding into form under the direction of the Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy.
I have a feeling the men who saw the park’s potential more than 90 years ago would approve.