BUCKHEAD: HENRY IRBY, JOHN WHITLEY AND THE BUCK THAT MADE HISTORY
Written by Wright Mitchell, President of the Buckhead Heritage Society
The name Buckhead is known across the United States as a prestigious community of homes, shops and restaurants. But what are the true origins of Buckhead and its famous name?
The earliest residents of Buckhead were the Creek Indians. The Creek Indian Village of Standing Peachtree, located on the present site of the River Pumping Station of the Atlanta Waterworks on Ridgewood Road, was a thriving center for trade and commerce around 1800. On January 8, 1821, however, the Creek Indians ceded land, including present day Buckhead, to the State of Georgia, which opened the way for white settlement in the area.
The State of Georgia subsequently split the former Creek land into 202 ½ acre lots and assigned the area encompassing the intersection of present day West Paces Ferry and Roswell Roads, the figurative “heart” of Buckhead, to Land Lot 99, District 17. An individual named Conrad Angley obtained Land Lot 99 from the State of Georgia on December 6, 1823. The next owner of Land Lot 99 was Daniel Johnson, but there is no record of when or how Johnson obtained the land. The deed referencing the transfer of Land Lot 99 to Daniel Johnson was likely destroyed in a fire at the DeKalb County Courthouse in 1842; Buckhead was part of DeKalb County at the time. On December 18, 1838, Daniel Johnson sold Land Lot 99 to Henry Irby for $650.00. Irby, born the son of a harness maker in South Carolina in 1807, would become Buckhead’s “founding father”.
Unfortunately, not much is known about Irby’s early life. According to family lore, when Irby was about 10 years old, his father set off to Savannah to peddle his wares and never returned, possibly having been killed by Indians who wanted his wagon and horses. The exact date of Irby’s appearance in Buckhead is unknown, but by at least 1832 he was residing in DeKalb County as evidenced by unclaimed letters at the Decatur, Georgia Post Office bearing his name.
Irby, described by one relative as a small man who wore a size 6 boy’s shoe, subsequently married Sardis Walraven in Jackson County, Georgia on December 26, 1833. The couple settled into a one story log cabin on Pace’s Ferry Road in the vicinity of present day Whole Foods. Although Irby would eventually become a well-known merchant, he considered himself to be primarily a farmer. At the time, the vast majority of Buckhead’s residents, like Irby, supported themselves through farming. Indeed, the 1850 Census of the Buckhead District lists 408 residents with a total of 56 farmers, 8 laborers, a lawyer, a doctor, a blacksmith, and a carpenter.
Irby’s farm, at a value of $5,000, was probably one of the more prosperous in the area. His possessions included 3 horses, 2 cows, 2 oxen, 32 sheep, 40 swine, 37 bushels of wheat, 1320 bushels of corn, 180 bushels of oats, 100 lbs of butter, 30 bags of sweet potatoes, 3 bushels of peas and beans and 10 pounds of wool. His “slaughtered” livestock was worth $58.
Irby farmed his land with the assistance of his sons, James and George, as well as various laborers including an individual named James Haltstclaw. Irby also owned as many as four slaves who lived in shacks along present day Irby Avenue and assisted in the fields and at the Irby residence. Irby also operated a blacksmith shop, which was located at the corner of Pace’s Ferry Road and Early Street.
At some point, Irby recognized that the farmers in the area needed goods that could not be easily produced on the farm, especially liquor. To capitalize on this opportunity, Irby built a one story frame general store on his property in the northwest angle of present day West Paces Ferry and Roswell Roads. According to Irby’s grandson, Seaborn L. Ivey, the store was a one story structure approximately 20x40 feet in size with a fireplace and a large front porch. Although Irby sold groceries and alcohol at the store, there was no “tavern” in the commonly accepted sense of the word, despite frequent modern day references to “Irby’s Tavern”.
Irby permitted drovers to park their turkeys, hogs or cattle for the night in a vacant lot west of the store. He also likely allowed these drovers to spend the night in a spare room or rooms in the store for a small fee. Apparently, Irby gave no “family discount” on the rentals as the Fulton County Probate records of Andrew J. Waldraven, who died on May 7, 1860, reflect that he was indebted to Irby “for services rendered during the last sickness in waiting on and boarding him while sick about 2 months.”
The area at the intersection of Pace’s Ferry and Roswell Roads quickly became the center of activity in the area. Irby, flush with the success of his new business ventures, began to expand his portfolio with additional real estate in the area and the purchase of the Glades Gold Mine outside of Gainesville, Georgia.
About the same time that Irby was settling into relative prosperity on Pace’s Ferry Road, John Whitley was growing tired of life in rural Pitt County, North Carolina. Whitley, who was married with four children, was weary of scratching out a meager existence as a farmer in the rocky soil outside of Greenville, North Carolina. When a group of friends and neighbors approached him about moving to Mississippi, Whitley jumped at the chance. Whitley loaded up a wagon with his family and all their worldly possessions and set out over the mountains toward a new beginning. By the time the caravan reached Georgia, however, Whitley’s enthusiasm for the journey had fallen victim to the endless jarring of the rutted wagon trails and the rolling hills and abundant streams of Vinings, Georgia seemed like a perfectly fine place to stop.
Whitley purchased a 40 acre parcel of land on the Cobb County side of the Chattahoochee River and built a one room log cabin with a fieldstone chimney just north of Vinings. To support his growing family, Whitley planted fields of corn, cotton and tobacco and farmed them with implements made in his own blacksmith shop. A master gunsmith, Whitley also hunted the abundant wildlife in the area with flint lock rifles he made by hand.
One fateful day, Whitley ventured down Pace’s Ferry Road to Irby’s store for provisions and a little socializing. As always, Whitley carried his favorite rifle with him. As Whitley neared store, he stopped at a bold spring just to the south of Pace’s Ferry and a few hundred feet west of Peachtree Road in the vicinity of where the Atlanta History Center now stands. As Whitley scanned the dense forest, he noticed movement in the brush. Out walked a large buck and Whitley raised his rifle to his shoulder, looked down the sight, pulled the trigger and gave birth to a legend.
Whitley dressed the deer and planted the large head on a post by the stream. So large was the head, that people began to tell their friends that they would see them at the buck’s head and the area became colloquially known as Buckhead. Seaborn Ivey, interviewed by Wilbur Kurtz in 1935, recalled that the buck’s head, which was little more than antlers and a skull with shriveled skin, was posted on a 3 or 4 foot high stake at the stream across Pace’s Ferry Road from Irby’s House. Since Ivey was not born until 1853, it seems likely that the buck’s head remained a fixture in the area for many decades.
The first official appearance of the name “Buckhead” can be found in a December 22, 1840 Act of the Georgia Legislature, which established Irby’s house “at the place known as Buck Head” as an election district. On October 5, 1841, perhaps because there was already a U.S. Post Office in Morgan County, Georgia known as “Buckhead”, a U.S. Post office was established at the Irby settlement and designated as “Irbyville”. Thereafter, the names Buckhead and Irbyville were used interchangeably for many years. Eventually, Irbyville, which was likely just a name of necessity, faded from use and the historic name of Buckhead assumed prominence.
Henry Irby and John Whitley are both central figures in the formation of what we now know as Buckhead. Like Irby and Whitley, Buckhead’s rural beginnings are long gone. But tangible links to both men still exist. Henry Irby rests at Sardis Methodist Church Cemetery along with his other family members. And the cabin that Whitley built in the early 1800s is now located behind a private residence in Buckhead, where it was moved when the construction of Interstate 285 in the 1960s disrupted its serene existence.
Garrett, Franklin, Atlanta & Environs, Vol. I
Barnhart, Susan Kessler, Buckhead: A Place for All Time, Hill Street Press 1996
Research Notes of Sharon Matthews, great great great grandaughter of Henry Irby, November 5, 2012.
We’d like to thank Wright Mitchell, President of the Buckhead Heritage Society, for being our guest blogger! Learn more about the Buckhead Heritage Society here.
Learn more about the “fabulous” location we picked for our next Party With the Past on November 15, 2012! RSVP here: http://bit.ly/P4haXc
You know Buckhead for the great bars, shopping, dining, and beautiful mansions. But where did the name Buckhead come from? The story may surprise you.
In the mid-1800s, a man named John Whitley left North Carolina and settled near the present day site of Buckhead. Like many early settlers in the area, he bought some land and began growing corn, cotton, and tobacco. Sometime between 1838 and 1840, Whitley shot a large deer near a creek on the present day site of the Atlanta History Center. He then took the head from the animal and affixed it to a nearby pole or tree. Soon after, the area came to be known as “Buck Head.” Eventually the name was shortened to “Buckhead.”
Looking around Buckhead today, it’s easy to assume that anything having to do with that time has since been erased (except for the name). But hidden in the woods behind an unassuming Buckhead mansion sits the small one room cabin Whitley called home.
Whitley built this cabin in Cobb County in the 1840s after leaving Buckhead. Three generations of Whitley’s lived in the cabin, the last being Jim Whitley, grandson of John Whitley. By the 1950s, highway construction threatened the structure, and it was moved to Buckhead where it remains today. The John Whitley Cabin is on private property and is not accessible to the public.
Tucked away behind the AHC’s Swan House is the picturesque Victorian Playhouse. This playhouse has entertained Atlanta children since 1890, and has resided in several Atlanta neighborhoods including Inman Park, Ansley Park, Brookwood Hills, and Buckhead. Donated to the AHC in 1980, the playhouse is a great example of the type of architecture commonly found in Atlanta between 1890 and 1920.
Here’s a list of previous owners and years the playhouse was moved:
1890 - Goldsmith family, Peachtree Street
1906 - Seals family, Inman Park
1910 - Murphy family, Ansley Park
1926 - Hurt family, Brookwood Hills
1932 - Ellis family, Buckhead
1980 - Atlanta History Center
I got really excited driving to work this morning!
Harmony Grove Cemetery
Thousands of cars zip down West Paces Ferry Road past the Atlanta History Center every day. But very few people notice the small cemetery nestled in the trees on the corner of Chatham Road, just a block away from the museum. I have to admit that I’ve worked at the AHC for nearly five years and had never ventured into the cemetery. So I decided to take a long overdue walk down the street to check it out.
The earliest known burial dates to 1870, when the James H. Smith family buried their youngest son on the site. The cemetery contains more than 170 plots, and is divided into a white and black section. Burials were not very frequent at the site until the late 1880s when a church was built nearby. By 1918, the congregation had broken up and the church was torn down. The cemetery fell into private hands and by the 1950s, it had become overgrown and was generally neglected. In 2006, the Buckhead Heritage Society led an effort to restore the cemetery, and with the help of archeologists, landscape architects, and headstone repair experts, the cemetery was reclaimed.
Some of the most notable occupants are the father of Dorothy Shay (better known as the Park Avenue Hillbilly), and the great-grandparents of actress Julia Roberts.
Next time you come to the AHC, be sure to stop by and check out Harmony Grove!