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This is part of a series of historic structure reports on the historic architecture of Georgia and the Southeast by Tommy H. Jones. It is posted here for educational purposes only and may not be used or reproduced for commercial purposes or without the express permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

Little is known about Tullie Smith’s childhood beyond the fact that she was born in June 1885 at her great-grandfather’s old house on the old Powers Ferry Road. As noted above, the family did not live there long and Tullie must have spent much of her formative years on Highland Avenue, although with frequent stays in “the country.” The earliest record of her apart from her parents is the 1906 Atlanta City Directory that lists her boarding on Spring Street with Joseph M. Weston. Then 19, it is not known what was her occupation, if any, during that time.[1]

Figure 1. Detail from 1910 Federal census of Fulton County, annotated with an arrow to locate Benjamin and Tullie Mitchell.

The details of Tullie’s life before the 1920s are sparse, not surprising since she rarely talked about herself. Among the details of which even many of her family members were unaware was the fact that “Miss” Tullie Smith had been married. On 12 November 1906, she and Benjamin F. Mitchell took out a marriage license in Fulton County and, three days later, they were married, with James B. Ricklen officiating.[2] The son of Joseph W. and Anna Mitchell, Benjamin was born in October 1883, probably at the family farm somewhere near Decatur, but littleabout 1884 but other details of his early life have not been researched. In the 1905 Atlanta City Directory he is listed as secretary of the Farmer’s Exchange, with a residence at old 443 Edgewood Avenue.

For at least a time, they lived on Highland Avenue, perhaps with her parents, while Mitchell worked as secretary for the Farmer’s Exchange. By 1908, they were living at old 123 Bryan Street in Grant Park, where they lived at least through 1910 when the Federal census listed his occupation as "housing contractor." By the fall of 1911, when information was gathered for the 1912 directory, they may have already separated since Mitchell is listed at the Bryan Street address with a wife named “Estella,” although that could easily be a misspelling of Tullie’s name. Mitchell’s occupation was now listed as “real estate.”[3]

Figure 2. View of Tullie Smith House, c. 1930. (Vanishing Georgia Collection)

 

Tullie's niece believed that the marriage “did not last long,” and although DeKalb County records show Tullie still using her married name in 1915, she and Ben must have already divorced.[4] He died early on 24 April 1915, “following an illness of three months,” according to the a brief obituary published in the Constitution that morning. Although still carrying his name, Tullie was not listed as one of his survivors, either in the obituary or the funeral notice published the next day for his burial. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Westview Cemetery.[5]

Whatever the circumstances of the marriage, they were such that Tullie never mentioned it during the numerous times in which she was interviewed by the newspapers and others later in life. In addition, at least by the time of her father’s death, she was again “Miss” Tullie Smith, at a time when the traditional nomenclature of widowhood (to which she was at least technically entitled) required the use of “Mrs.” Perhaps there was a good reason for the comment by her neighbor many years later that “[s]he was a woman that did not trust many men. She said they only was [sic] after her land or wanted to borrow money.”[6]

It may, in fact, have been Mitchell’s death that precipitated Tullie and her mother’s move back to the country house, an event that occurred around 1915 according to Sparks’ article. By the time the 1916 directory information was compiled in the fall of 1915, Tullie’s parents had moved from Highland Avenue to 28 E. Georgia Avenue while Tullie herself, still using the proper title of Mrs. Mitchell, was living on Highland Avenue, either in her parents’ house or across the street. Next door was her sister Gertrude and her new husband George C. Lacy. Tullie’s occupation in the directory was listed as book-keeper. That is the last listing for Tullie or her parents in the Atlanta city directories although they do appear in some of the later suburban directories. Certainly by the fall of 1917, they were no longer living in Atlanta and had returned to DeKalb County.

Figure 3. Detail from 1930 Federal census of DeKalb County. Tullie Smith and her mother are at the top of the page.

By the time of her father’s death in 1924, Tullie had probably already begun the photography business that she is reported to have operated during that period. Although her nephew recalled its being located in the old Kimball House, no listing for it either under her married or maiden name can be found in the city directories. According to a newspaper interview in the late 1940s, Tullie found the business “interesting and lucrative and gave it up only when she gave everything else up to devote herself entirely to her mother. Among other things, her studio initiated the custom of going to the bride’s home prior to the wedding ceremony and taking pictures of the wedding party.”[7]

In 1926, Tullie’s mother had a plat made of her property. Although the quality of the copy at the DeKalb County Courthouse is poor, it is the earliest plat of the property that has been located. The USGS topographical map that was made the following year more accurately depicts the roads and structures on the landscape at that time and make it clear that the setting of Tullie Smith's house retained most of its historically rural character. Tullie's closest neighbors during this period was her tenant farmer, Benjamin Peak, his wife Fannie, and their children. The 1926 plat shows two tenant houses, both located across the road and a few hundred feet southeast of Tullie's house, but by the time the 1930 Federal census was taken, only one of those was occupied.

Adjoining the Smiths' property to the southeast were the Tuggles who operated a dairy and whose large two-story white house was a landmark on Briarcliff Road just south of North Druid Hills Road until it was razed in the early 1980s. Dairy truck drivers and other workers occupied several separate residences on both roads.

Figure 4. Plat of "Property of Mrs. Mary E. Smith," dated 1926. (DeKalb County Superior Court, Plat Book 10, page 64)

 

Figure 5. Detail from 1927 USGS topographical survey map, annotated with an arrow to indicate location of Tullie Smith's house. The 1926 plat in Figure 2 encompasses appropximately the upper right quarter of this image.

In April 1932, Mary Ella Smith decided to convey title of the 287 acres in Land Lot 155 and 156 that William Berry Smith had assembled in the 1880s to Tullie, a fourth generation on land that had by then been in the family for most of the last hundred years.[8] The house had probably been little changed since the 1880s and it still had no modern conveniences, including electricity, although a telephone was installed in the early 1930s. A new kitchen was constructed as an addition to the old one, which was turned into a dining room, but a pair of two-hole privies a short distance from the rear of the house still provided the only sanitary facilities for the residence. Living in the house in the 1920s and early 1930s would not have been all that different from what it had been in the 1850s.

As automobile traffic increased and the house was seen by more and more people, it became somewhat of a landmark in the area. Robert H. Smith had sited the house on a natural elevation, but the old Powers Ferry Road followed the natural contours of the land so that road and house were essentially on the same plane. Road improvements in the 1920s, however, reduced the grade of the road to such an extent that it now sat on a small hill overlooking the road and was known as “the House on the Hill.”

On 28 October 1935, Mary Ella Smith died at her house at the age of 77, “with her devoted family about her,” according to a long obituary by O. B. Keeler that was published in the Atlanta Journal the next day. “With her,” said Keeler, “ passed one of the true women of the Old South, whose early childhood was before the War Between the States and whose first recollections were indelibly associated with the invasion by the army under General Sherman, in his march to the sea.” She was buried next to her husband and parents in the Decatur Cemetery.

After her mother’s death, Tullie “took a much needed rest but soon began to get restless and before she knew it was head over heels in civic affairs in DeKalb County,” according to a 1947 newspaper interview with her. She was a member of both the Atlanta and the Decatur Woman’s Club, several garden clubs, and was once director of the DeKalb County Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce. She was also head of the DeKalb County Community Chest and a well-known fundraiser for various charities in the county. Throughout, she continued to be active at Rock Spring Presbyterian Church, which her grandfather had helped found in the 1870s.[9] No doubt, she was responsible for the memorial windows to her parents that were installed after the present church building was completed in 1922.

Tullie was a person that many people remembered, not only for her striking personal appearance but also for her generous human qualities. The 1947 interview described a Tullie that most people would have recognized:

Miss Tullie is six feet, one inch—plus—and her general build fits her height nicely. Her auburn—if you asked her she would promptly say “red”—hair is worn in a braid around her head and she definitely knows how to dress a tall woman. It is amusing to hear her hearty laugh ring out when she compares her size to that of Stone Mountain, “the two largest things of their own kind in DeKalb County,” adding that the chief difference is that she is movable but the Rock isn’t. Her outstanding qualities are an unlimited kindliness of heart and a keen sense of humor, which can as readily appreciate a joke on herself as on the other person. . . . Miss Tullie Smith is “Good Medicine,” for laughter constitutes two-thirds of her make-up. A raconteur of no mean ability, her stories range from man-size yarns that may bring tears to one’s eyes—from laughter—to stories that bring tears to one’s eyes because of pathos.[10]

With her mother’s death, Tullie began to make improvements to the house, including having it wired for electricity in 1936 and adding a modern bathroom on the old breezeway shortly after World War II.[11] She also kept a “generous vegetable garden,” a reporter wrote, but the rest of her old farmland, like so much southern farm land after the onslaught of the boll weevil, was let to grow up in “what probably will be a most profitable crop of pines.”[12]

Figure 6. Detail from Georgia Writer's Project map of Atlanta, 1941, annotated with an arrow to locate Tullie Smith's house. (Author's Collection)

 

Even before World War II, Atlanta’s suburban development was beginning to transform the countryside around Tullie Smith’s house. The road on which she lived had been improved and renamed again, this time to N. Druid Hills Road. Suburban development centered around Brookhaven was occurring all along Roxboro and N. Druid Hills Roads north toward Peachtree Road. Down Briarcliff Road, Daniel Johnson’s old cemetery was being moved and his farm subdivided for Johnson Estates, one of Atlanta’s few suburban developments during the Great Depression.

Figure 7. Tullie Smith at the mailbox at her home on North Druid Hills Road, c. 1960. (Atlanta History Center)

Among Tullie’s new neighbors in the late 1930s was a man named J. Harold Street, and the two soon became good friends. His reminiscences of “Miss Tullie” that were published in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine in 1969 are some of the best of the several that were published in the local papers beginning in the late 1940s. To the new, post-World War II suburban community that was fast growing up to her very doorstep, Tullie now represented a time long past, the character of the entire county rapidly being transformed from rural to suburban.

Tullie apparently resisted the urge to profit from the suburban residential development, although she did sell a small parcel to a blasting powder company along with easements to Georgia Power for high-tension power lines in the 1940s. She did not like apartment buildings, according to one account, and said, as commercial development was going up around her in the 1950s and 1960s, “I could have ended up surrounded by dirt dauber nests.” Instead, Tullie saw to it “way back,” according to her niece, that the property was zoned for commercial and industrial use.[13]

Work had begun on the new “Metropolitan Expressway System” in 1949 and, by the early 1950s, ten and a half miles of it had been built, although there was still no “downtown connector” between the north and south legs of the expressways, as they were then called. In July 1951, an appropriation of $400,000 of state and federal money was made for acquisition of right-of-way for the 3.4 miles of the “Northeast Expressway,” which ended initially at North Druid Hills Road. Four lanes wide, with room to expand to six lanes, “if needed,” the expressways were already carrying more traffic in 1957 than had been projected for 1970. With widening of Buford Highway to four lanes in 1957, part of it running through Tullie’s Peachtree Creek bottom land, land values in the area doubled and tripled to as much as $1200 an acre.[14]

Flgure 8. Detail from U. S. Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, aerial photograph of vicinity of Tullie Smith's house in 1960, annotated with an arrow to locate house. In this image, N. Druid Hills Road meanders from lower right to upper left, crossed diagonally by, from top to bottom, Buford Highway, the new Northeast Expressway (now I-85), Georgia Power's right-of-way, and Briarcliff Road. (Digital Library of Georgia, 2004)

With completion of the Northeast Expressway, later designated I-85, the time was ripe for the kind of development that suited Tullie Smith and, in January of 1960, Tullie sold most of her land in Land Lot 156 to Roscoe Pickett for an undisclosed sum of money. By April 1965, development of Atlanta’s first suburban office park was underway on a 109-acre tract that included some of the land that she had sold in 1960.[15] Designed by the Atlanta architectural firm of Stevens and Wilkinson with landscape design by Sasaki, Dawson, and Demay, the development of Executive Park turned Robert Smith’s old farm into the first of many such developments that would, over the next twenty years, change the face of the city.

Even as she was selling her land, however, Tullie’s house was appreciated as an important part of the county’s heritage. Besides her friendship with Franklin Garrett, with whom she had extensive talks on local history, Tullie was acquainted with Mills B. Lane Jr., then president of Citizens and Southern National Bank and considered “Mr. Preservation” in Savannah for his efforts to revive that city's historic district. He may be best known today for his acclaimed series Architecture of the Old South, with volumes for each state, that he produced in the 1970s and 1980s. He had recently acquired the Swanton House, one of Decatur’s oldest structures, and his natural interest in preservation provoked him to call on Tullie, “cold turkey” as he put it, to discuss the future of her house. His initial plan was to see the house restored as part of the new office park but Tullie had apparently already been considering donation of the house to the Atlanta Historical Society.[16]

In spite of her apparent interest in insuring the house’s preservation, Tullie never got around to making a formal gift of the house to the historical society or to anyone else. Her will remained essentially as it had been written in August 1961, with a minor codicil added in 1964, and left most of her estate to her one surviving sibling, her nieces and nephews, and their children. Nearly $200,000 was earmarked for distribution to them along with $10,000 to Dr. C. A. N. Rankin, who may have been her personal physician, and lesser bequests to her friends Mrs. Rosa Lee and Mrs. Alice Bracewell. The will also outlined distribution of the remainder of the estate, which Tullie assumed would amount to several hundred thousand dollars more, into trust funds for the children of her brother Edward—Edward M. Smith Jr., Jean Smith Holman, Mary Ella Ackerly (later Johnson), and William Berry Smith. Her lawyer, Roscoe Pickett, who had managed the sale of some of her property before her death, was named executor.[17]

Tullie Smith died on 27 July 1967 at the her house on N. Druid Hills Road.[18] Probably because the Mason lot in which her parents were buried was full, she was buried two days later in the Mausoleum at Westview Cemetery.[19] One of the area's great landmarks now sat vacant in the middle of one of the biggest commercial developments the city had ever seen.

 

 

Notes

1. The 1900 Federal Census documents the birthdate of "Tula V," daughter of "W.B." and "M.E." Smith as June 1885. Directory listing information was taken in the fall of 1905 for the 1906 directory.

2. Fulton County Marriage Licenses, Book N, p. 563.

3. Atlanta City Directories, 1900-1916.

4. DeKalb County Bench Dockets, Book C, p. 203 and 207, lists suits brought by Tullie under the names “Mrs. T. V. Mitchell” in 1912 and “Mrs. B. F. Mitchell” in 1914 and 1915. In the 1930 Federal census, however, she gave her marital status as divorced.

5. Westview Cemetery records show him buried in Section 12, Lot 166, grave #4.

6J. Harold Street, “My Friend Tullie,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, December 14, 1969.

7. Mary Margaret Lindsay, “Patchwork,” Suburban Gazette, April 17, 1947. No further documentation for Tullie’s photography career nor any of her photographs have been located.

8. DeKalb County, Deed Book 337, p. 33.

9. Lindsay, Suburban Gazette.

10. Ibid.

11. Telephone interviews with Tullie’s niece, Jane Smith Holman, December 1996.

12. Lindsay, Suburban Gazette.

13. Sparks, p. 22. Mary Ella Mason Smith Johnson was interviewed extensively by Sparks. Recently deceased, she was the de facto family historian and appears to have inherited all of the Smith family papers. The whereabouts of those documents is not known in 1996.

14. Harold H. Martin, Atlanta and Environs (Athens: University of Georgia Press, p. 1987), Vol. III, p. 269.

15. DeKalb County, Deed Book 1481, p. 13; Book 1497, p. 537; Plat Book 30, p. 103. The details of Pickett’s involvement in the development of Executive Park are not known.

16. Sparks, p. 22.

17. DeKalb County, Estate #67-810; Will Book U, p. 1051. The trust that Tullie placed in Roscoe Pickett, who gained some notoriety for his ill-fated campaigns for public office, is interesting.

18. Atlanta Journal, July 28, 1967.

19. Westview Cemetery, Crypt 493, Tier DD.

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