Editor’s note: The second Ray Mock Memorial Golf Tournament benefiting the Chastain Park Conservancy was scheduled for May 1 but was postponed to a date to be determined due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Mock, the conservancy’s co-founder, died unexpectedly in the park July 15, 2019, after this column was originally published in 2017.
One man single-handedly did more than any other to create Chastain Memorial Park in Buckhead and launch the Fulton County parks department, and it’s not Troy Green Chastain.
His name is George Starr Peck, an attorney whose father, Dr. Frank Peck, owned a large piece of property on Roswell Road. His contribution would be lost to time if not for a letter dated April 16, 1951, a copy of which is in the office of Ray Mock of the Chastain Park Conservancy. It was written by the younger Peck to his father’s heirs, and it was about the land they inherited through a trust.
In 1911, Frank Peck purchased 47.97 acres of land along Roswell Road to the north of Powers Ferry Road for $8,550. Nancy Creek flowed through it to the north, and to the west it abutted two county convict camps: one housing men, the other women. The men’s stockade, accessed by Powers Ferry Road, was close to Peck’s property. Much of the county land – 1,000 acres in all – was farmland used to grow cabbages to feed all of the prisoners in Fulton.
It was also home to two county alms houses – now the Galloway School and the Chastain Arts Center.
The convict camps were a nuisance for the nearby residents. Not only did they hurt property values, but the prisoners frequently escaped.
“… the baying of bloodhounds ranged our property which was nearest the woods,” George Peck wrote. “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.”
Beginning in 1929, he executed an elaborate plan that would eventually lead to the closing of the camps and the creation of a large park with a golf course at its center. Fortuitously, his law partner, Paul Etheridge Sr., entered politics and would eventually become a county Superior Court judge. Before that, though, he was named the chairman of public works for Fulton.
Peck proposed the idea of a park to Ethridge, who endorsed it. There was one substantial problem with the plan: the county didn’t have authority to operate parks. A bill had to be passed in the Georgia Legislature to accomplish that goal.
Undeterred, George Peck made that happen, thus launching the Fulton parks department. He then ran into the same political infighting that hampers the county to this day. A south Fulton commissioner blocked the construction of the new park on three separate occasions after it had been approved.
As a result, the camps remained, and worse for George Peck’s plan, a real estate developer was negotiating a land swap which would allow a neighborhood to be built on the site. His argument was the golf course at the center of the park was not feasible.
With no formal training, George Peck took a topographical map of the property and drew an 18-hole golf course in a single night. He included a plan to dredge and straighten Nancy Creek through the property. At the next Fulton Board of Commissioners meeting, each commissioner had a Photostat copy of Peck’s design. His gambit succeeded. The county rebuffed the prospector and moved forward with the park plan.
In 1945, George Peck’s proposal culminated with the opening of the park, which included a golf course designed by golfing great Bobby Jones’ friend Chandler Egan, a pool, tennis courts, grills and grottos, a horse park and an amphitheater. The convicts did some of the work along with those employed through the Works Progress Administration.
Of course, George Peck and his family stood to gain by getting rid of a prison farm and replacing it with a 268-acre park. The Frank Peck property today houses the Goodwill Store and the Lutheran Church of the Ascension church on Roswell Road, and runs along Laurel Forest Circle and Laurel Drive to Lake Forrest Road.
I don’t want to take anything away from the legacy of Troy Chastain – a one-term county commissioner for whom the park is named – but the true story of the park is a fascinating tale.