Editor’s note: When Stephen Johnston, property owner at 80 Johnson Ferry Road, found out that the city of Sandy Springs planned to take part of his land for the future City Center, he contacted Heritage Sandy Springs to investigate and document the lot’s history. Below, Kimberly Brigance, the center’s director of historic resources, tells us about some of the history of the land and its original owners.

By Kimberly Brigance

In the early 1820s, John Austin and his wife Elizabeth Copeland gathered their little family and what money they had and set out for the American Frontier. They weren’t headed to the west as we know it, they were headed to Sandy Springs.

William “Major Bill” Collins Austin lived on Johnson Ferry Road.

William “Major Bill” Collins Austin lived on Johnson Ferry Road.

A wave of poor and middling families from Virginia to South Carolina began pouring into Georgia as soon as the state began giving away vast swathes of land in lotteries. Lucky winners received 202 acres of uncleared land. Most, like the Austins and Copelands, were not lottery winners, but they were able to buy parcels of land from the winners at cheap prices and begin farming for
themselves.

The land had not been cleared, and few parcels had roads leading to them. Furthermore, at the time of the first settlement, the Cherokee Nation, a completely different country, lay just across the Chattahoochee River. Nonetheless, Sandy Springs, or Oak Grove as it was called at the time, continued to grow with settlers each hoping to own their own land and farm.

It was along Johnson Ferry Road that Austin built his home and farm. The dusty road would have bustled with people going between the towns of Marietta and Decatur (Atlanta wasn’t founded until the 1850s), and later with families headed to the newly-opened lands in Alabama and Mississippi.

See also: Resident: City taking my land will ‘wipe out’ Civil War history

The Austin family grew and prospered, becoming members of the Sandy Springs Methodist Church and participating in local politics. It appears from records the Austin family had considerable land holdings and homes with outbuildings, including kitchens and spring houses, as well as barns and perhaps even a
small mill.

By the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), Austin had died, and two sons, William Collins and Thomas Franklin, were considered old men. We don’t know what words they gave to their children or how they may have tried to influence them, but three of William’s sons joined the fight for the Confederacy. In April 1864, as the fighting drew closer to our community, the two men, along with others previously considered too old, young or sick to participate, were pressed into service.

Thomas Franklin Austin was sent to guard the Federal prisoners at Andersonville. His muster roll clearly states that he was an “old man,” but he was nonetheless put to work. He would have been away from his family when Federal troops occupied his home and the rest of Sandy Springs in July 1864. Perhaps he did not live to hear of the devastation of his family and their farm. The old settler’s son died far away from home in October
1864.

At nearly the same time, William Collins Austin was assigned to a camp in Augusta. While in service he learned two of his sons had been killed in the bloody fields of Virginia. His third and last son died while trying to return home.

William C. Austin did make it home to the leafy oak trees that guarded his little house on Johnson Ferry Road. He was affectionately called “Major Bill” for the rest of his life. After his death, the land passed to his daughter and into the Burdett family, which held it well into the 20th century. Some can still recall it was the only house between what is now the Abernathy Arts building and Roswell Road.

The house and its oaks no longer stand, but the story of the family is slowly being teased out by the current land owner and members of Heritage Sandy Springs. Underneath the current building are the remains of a large, river rock chimney. Likely the structure was too substantial to raise and it was just knocked down to below the current floor level for convenience.

In the backyard, a deep, hand-dug well presents a bit of a mystery. I don’t know why anyone would go to the trouble to dig such a deep well when there are dozens of springs within easy walking distance. Perhaps it was just a luxury to have a well that close to the house.

Just a few dozen steps away, a spring still runs through the backyard. This creek is a combination of springs that join up and run into the Chattahoochee River. The remains of a spring house can still be seen. In the past the rock floor and running water would have kept dairy products and some vegetables cold. I can imagine how nice it must have been to slip down there on a hot day.

I understand that this area may soon be part of a retention pond being built for the new City Center.

It was great the owner asked us to come document the area while we can. It really helps us understand more about our community and the people that made it.

You can learn more about this time in our history at Heritage Sandy Springs Museum’s new exhibition, “The Civil War in Sandy Springs.” The museum is located at 6075 Sandy Springs Circle, and is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.heritagesandysprings.org or email curator@heritagesandysprings.org.

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