When Eretus “Petie” Rivers died in 1932, E. Rivers Elementary School students attended his service at Spring Hill mortuary, along with many Atlanta leaders.

They likely didn’t know who he was, though his name adorned their school, called Peachtree Heights School initially. Fulton County changed the name in 1926 for his service on the board of education and to the community writ large. His company donated the land for the school.

He died at the young age of 60, having transformed Buckhead from a rural enclave of large tracts of land into some of the most beautiful and verdant neighborhoods in the South.

I am biased. The home of my childhood was in one of the neighborhoods he developed.

Rivers grew up about 60 miles south of Atlanta in Pike County. His mom and dad were from prominent Southern families. His father was wounded in the Civil War and suffered serious injuries at the Battle of Shenandoah in Virginia.

Perhaps that’s why Rivers dropped out of school when he was 14 and traveled to Atlanta. He started as an office boy for the Central Georgia Railroad. When he was 16, he served as a clerk with the railroad.

He boarded at a home that would belong to a Dr. Thomas Powell. That is notable because Rivers would marry Powell’s niece, Una Sperry. Before the 1900 marriage, he became the youngest railroad official in the country as the manager of Macon terminals.

In 1903, he joined a prominent real estate company run by J.R. Robson and J.T. Hollman, which soon became Robson and Rivers. Rivers bought out Hollman, a move that warranted an announcement in the Atlanta Constitution.

The paper said the firm “has for its object the assemblage of the best talent in Atlanta and doing the biggest business in the city.”

What I noticed in reading about the man is he was a consummate salesman.

A 1908 article in the Atlanta Constitution about the state of the real estate market quoted him saying, “Atlanta real estate is the finest asset on Earth,” and “The fact is the formation of all our great fortunes in Atlanta are based in real estate.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1906, he and his associates purchased the Leontine Chisolm Andrews estate on the other side of Peachtree Road. The company laid out the neighborhood defined by the Duck Pond at its heart in 1908. By 1913 the neighborhood had 20 homes. World War I interrupted the development, but by 1928, that number grew to 175.

Also in 1908, Rivers launched Rivers Real Estate Company. In 1910 he and his business partners spent $325,000 to acquire more than 400 acres of the former Wesley Gray Collier estate. He would develop Peachtree Heights Park on the property, building Habersham Road, West Wesley — where I grew up — Muscogee Avenue and, of course, Rivers Road.

I have it on good authority the Rivers Real Estate Company also developed the Berkley Park in the 1920s neighborhood in south Buckhead off Howell Mill Road.

Rivers was more than a real estate developer and a land broker. He was also a civic leader, serving on the Fulton County School Board and helping create the Atlanta Boys Club, which became the YMCA. He was one of the founders of Oglethorpe University and served as the business manager of the Stone Mountain Confederate Monument.

Allow me to wade into some controversy on that last service. On balance, Rivers’ contributions to the community greatly outweigh what today is a blemish on his record. I’m not defending the carving in the side of Stone Mountain, but it is a part of our history, and many leaders contributed to it.

As someone interested in telling the stories of our past, we acknowledge it and move forward without erasing the contributions of the people who laid the foundations of our community, like Eretus Rivers.

I could not find a complete list of all of the neighborhoods Rivers and his associates had a hand in developing or the land sales he brokered, but I think it would be a worthy endeavor to compile one for the record.

In my mind, no single person had a more significant impact on Buckhead.

Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South, a public relations firm and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at thornton@prsouth.net

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