Tillers keep historic homestead in the family
The Mitchell-Tiller house is located in the Tiller Walk subdivision, off Glen Errol Drive in Sandy Springs.
Settled deep into a Sandy Springs hillside, surrounded by multimillion-dollar homes, the 170-year-old log cabin looks like it’s ready for another 170 years.
The Mitchell-Tiller house, built by John Mitchell around 1840 and owned by the Tiller family since 1894 (except for the years between 1935 and 1949), is one of just a few original local homesteads, according to Kimberly Brigance, the director of historic resources and programs at Heritage Sandy Springs.
“The Mitchell-Tiller house is one of only 10 19th century buildings still standing in Sandy Springs,” she said.
Janet and Steve Tiller, mother-and-son custodians of the property, have fond memories of the building and its place in their family. They use it now as a guest house.
“My great-grandfather James Tiller bought the property in late 1894 or early 1895,” Steve Tiller said.
James Tiller owned a bar and other businesses in downtown Atlanta and the cabin was supposed to be his “country place.”
James Tiller died in 1908. His widow Lucia moved with her three youngest children out to the cabin. Steve Tiller’s grandfather, Frank, grew up there.
“Times were not easy – he wasn’t a farmer, and this wooded hillside was not really great for living off the land. He used to say a rabbit would have to pack a lunch if he was passing through here,” Steve Tiller said.
Steve remembers visiting with his grandparents in the 1950s, when they lived in the cabin. Their lifestyle was not a bit like life in most Sandy Springs’ households today.
“When we stayed overnight in the winter, my grandmother would bundle us up in bed under lots and lots of quilts. You got so covered up you couldn’t really move. And since the house had no central heat, getting up in the morning was…an experience,” he said with a smile.
“You’d be freezing all the way downstairs until you hit the swinging doors that led into the kitchen. There, my grandmother had a wood cook stove going that was blasting out the heat. It was living in two extremes.”
During the Depression, the Tillers lost the property to a mortgage holder. What was once almost 400 acres along the hilly ridge line off of Mount Vernon Road became someone else’s property. That would have been the end of the Tiller story about this home and land, except for an intrepid band of federal revenue agents.
“Around 1947 or so, word around Sandy Springs was that there was a large illegal whiskey still on the property,” Janet Tiller said.
A group of lawmen descended on the farm and broke up a pretty big moonshine gang. “The folks who were running the still must have been tipped off, though, because when the revenue agents came calling, there were clothes in the closet and warm food still on the table, but no people,” she said.
Steve Tiller’s uncle, an attorney in Atlanta, saw a notice a couple of years later that the property was going to be sold on the Fulton County Courthouse steps for back taxes. He contacted Steve’s dad, an Air Force officer, and they bought back 50 acres and the family homestead.
The family moved back in.
“My husband and the family had always added to the original building all through its life, using recycled timbers, doors from a building being torn down, and bits and pieces they salvaged,” says Janet Tiller.
The home was lived in by the Tiller family until the 1990s, when it fell into disrepair and was due for an overhaul. Eventually the added-on construction was removed, and the heavy oak timbers re-set and re-chinked. The low ceiling was raised and, today, there is heat in the house.
“After my father passed away in 1990, my mother and I began to think about developing the property around the homestead. The taxes on the land were too great for us to keep all the land undeveloped, and the best plan was to take advantage of the boom in real estate here and build a neighborhood,” says Steve.
Tiller Walk broke ground in the mid 1990s. Fifty homes, some valued in the millions, were eventually built and today the neighborhood is quiet and prosperous, with pools, multi-car garages, gated driveways and lawn service trucks daily.
But in a corner of the property, hidden away by North Georgia woodlands, sits a family landmark.
“Things can’t ever remain the same over time, but it’s important to preserve what’s valuable.” says Steve Tiller. “So what we have to do, and what we’ve done here, is create a way to keep the heart of our family legacy intact, even if we did have to add central heat.”