The dogs making their way around Chastain Park any given day are just happy to be outside.
They are wagging their tails, stopping for inquisitive sniffs and generally being glad to be out of the house, tolerating, barely, being tethered to their owners while getting some much-needed exercise.
Dogs of another sort once roamed what would become Atlanta’s largest parks back in the 1920s; only these guys were hunting. They weren’t hunting birds or foxes; they were hunting human beings.
In a 1951 letter, nearby landowner George Peck wrote, “…The baying of bloodhounds ranged our property, which was nearest the woods. This convict camp constituted a festering spot which put a blight on all development which approached it and stunted the suburban growth in that direction and beyond.”
Peck inherited from his father land north along Roswell Road and north of present-day Powers Ferry Road. Nancy Creek flowed through it to the north; to the west, it abutted two Fulton County convict camps; one for men, the other women.
Chastain Park has a rich history that touches on all aspects of life in Georgia, going back 10,000 years. Home to Muskogee Indian settlements, the area was out in the country as a city took root nine miles directly south.
That was still the case when George Peck’s father purchased 47.97 acres along Roswell Road for $8,550 in 1911.
A few websites reference the Muscogee villages along Nancy Creek in the area. Considering the county straightened the creek for the golf course, there’s no way of knowing where exactly they were.
But knowing the Muscogee were also called the Creek for their propensity to live near waterways, it makes sense.
After the Muscogee sold their land to the United States starting in 1821, the area was in DeKalb County. The county used the site for town hall meetings.
In 1853, the state created Fulton County out of the western half of DeKalb. Fulton acquired the area that is today Chastain Park and its surroundings – about 1,000 acres – at the turn of the century.
In 1911, it built the almshouses that are today the main columned building of The Galloway School and the Chastain Arts Center. Segregated Fulton used the Galloway building for whites and the arts center for Blacks. They remained in use until the 1960s.
In 1938, Fulton began transforming the farmland surrounding the almshouses on Wieuca Road into a park as part of a Works Progress Administration project.
County Commissioner Troy Chastain is largely credited with pushing the project forward. He was a businessman and owned 147 acres around what is today in the area around Lake Forrest Drive and Long Island Road.
Making the area into a park would significantly enhance the value of his land. The almshouses and prison farm did the opposite. Around the same time, Peck was also pushing for the prison farm to become a public park for the same reason.
The plan was to encourage residential development in the area by building first-rate amenities over the 268-acre property: a golf course, a swimming pool, a horse ring and stables and a tennis center.
The county initially called the park North Fulton but changed its name to Chastain Memorial in 1946 in honor of Troy Chastain.
William Monroe Sr. is credited with the landscape design. His name may be familiar because of Monroe Drive, which bears his name. The Monroe Family Nursery was located there in Ansley Park. A master stonemason, Monroe designed the landscaping and rock work for many Buckhead homes and homes throughout the Atlanta region.
In the 1930s, he was hired as a consultant on two Fulton parks, the other being Adams Park.
County prisoners and the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency created by President Franklin Roosevelt that put people back to work during the Great Depression, did much of the labor in building the park.
Chastain Park became part of the city of Atlanta following the annexation of Buckhead in 1952.
The other significant development in Chastain’s history came in 1966, when it became home to the Northside Youth Organization (NYO).
Today, Chastain must be Atlanta’s most used park, from the amphitheater to the school, to NYO, to the golf course to the path. But I lament there isn’t more available to all its visitors about its long and winding history.