A committee led by Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Willis Sutton set about celebrating the Georgia milestone by creating a forest lush with oaks, pines, hickories, beeches and dogwoods with some magnolia, redbud, hawthorne, apple, peach, pear and plum trees thrown in for good measure. Sidewalks were to be lined with crepe myrtle, shrubs and trailing vines, and thousands of flowers were to be planted along the banks of Peachtree Creek from Northside Drive to Howell Mill Road.
Each tree planted in the forest was to honor a man or woman who made a significant contribution to the state. At its center would be a lake bearing a tree planted in honor of James Oglethorpe. All of this was intended to be a showpiece of Atlanta, with tourists traveling from all over to stare in awe at our natural beauty. The land had been donated by Hoke Smith, J.W. Bedell, Clark Howell Sr. and Albert Howell.
The first trees were planted by students from English Avenue and Faith schools in honor of noted authors Frank L. Stanton and Joel Chandler Harris and the great newspaperman Henry Grady in February 1933. That spring, in what was deemed the largest scholastic event of its kind according to newspaper reports, hundreds of school children acted out the history of Georgia through dance and song in the forest.
On Nov. 20, 1933, hundreds of trees were added with wish boxes buried at their bases. This phase drew children from all over Atlanta with more than 40 schools represented.
The idea behind this forest and the gift made by the Howell brothers, Bedell and Smith was even more ambitious than the planting of the Bicentennial Forest. The original vision called for individuals who owned land along the banks of Peachtree Creek to donate their lands as well, creating a natural boulevard stretching all the way to Stone Mountain with magnificent trees, shrubs, flowers and monuments.
Whatever happened to the Bicentennial Forest is anyone’s guess. The trees were begun as seeds, and it’s safe to say they didn’t all grow according to plan based on that stretch of property today. This story came from Erica Danylchak, executive director of the Buckhead Heritage Society, which identifies, preserves and supports Buckhead historic resources. Danylchak, who serves on the Bobby Jones Golf Course and Park Conservancy advisory board, has been researching the history of Memorial Park and recommended this back-to-school story. She is on the trail of the wish boxes to see if any of them are still buried in the park, and to figure out what on Earth could be in them.
I imagine it was a lot of hope and ideas, just like creating a thriving jewel in the heart of Buckhead that would draw thousands of tourists.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlanta resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.